ohmj10_business1The New Year rang in with a bang for Surterre Properties Inc., a high-performing Southern California real estate firm based in Newport Beach, with a record $19.8 million sale of a Newport Coast mansion last December. Paula Wilhelm of Surterre Properties says the big year-end sale only punctuates what she is distinctly seeing in her local market: a change in real estate confidence. “We have several properties currently in escrow well over the $10 million mark, which is quite extraordinary,” Wilhelm says. “We haven’t seen these bigger deals in quite some time. It’s really encouraging.”

According to Wilhelm, the high-end $10-$15 million market “went dead” last October when the “world kind of just stopped.” But the overall market has roared back for Surterre, which specializes in swanky Orange County coastal communities such as Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point, and all points inland. “We’re thrilled about 2010,” Wilhelm adds. “Overall, we had more escrows in January than in any month the previous three years.”

Other major Orange County players—Newport Beach-based Irvine Company and Irvine-based homebuilder Standard Pacific Corp.—also had positive news. The Irvine Company reported 70 sales in February totaling close to $50 million at its newly launched Woodbury and Woodbury East developments, the largest number of sales for a company opening since 2006. Meanwhile, Standard Pacific Corp., Orange County’s largest homebuilder, reported a fourth-quarter profit of $82.7 million, marking the first time the company has been in the black in three years. Sanford Edward, CEO of The Strand in Dana Point, says his company sold nine lots at his oceanfront development in 2009 averaging $2,700 per square foot, a big jump from 2008. Edward also says he sold a $12 million lot in February, while building permits have been pulled for 23 homes.

How does Wilhelm explain the positive turn of events? “People really feel we’ve hit rock bottom,” she says, “and they’re tired of being frozen by fear.” –By Scott Kauffman