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Home Prices Soar Where Buffalo Roam

WHEN newlyweds Tammy Kikuchi and Calvin Nakamura bought their first home in Utah in 1989, they had no idea they were moving into a bank vault.

Thanks to an influx of California companies to the Salt Lake City area, housing demand in the region has soared. Last year, the working couple sold their four-bedroom home -- on the market only nine days -- for twice its original price.

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''The sale price was representative at the time,'' Ms. Kikuchi says modestly.

While home prices nationwide have been heading south, pockets of prosperity exist across the country. The Rocky Mountain states, for instance, are currently experiencing a housing boom as low taxes, low land prices, and vibrant local economies draw large numbers of people to the region.

The escalating rates, in turn, are pleasing those who already own homes and stirring some surliness among those who want to get into the market.

Sparked by job growth

For the most part, analysts says, the hikes are being stimulated by people lured to the area by new jobs, not fortune hunters chasing a real-estate boom.

''There aren't that many people who are going to say 'Pack up the bags, Mom; We're moving to Boise,''' says Brian Bragg, editor of US Housing Markets, a newsletter published in Detroit by the Dallas-based Lomas Financial Group. Most of the people moving to Boise, Idaho, and other ''Flannel Belt'' cities are being relocated there by their employers.

The recent migration to the Rockies is part of a longer term pattern, Mr. Bragg says, with Americans leaving the crowded Northeast and Rust Belt for the wide-open West and prosperous Sunbelt. This migration has sped up in recent years, however, as a ''rolling recession'' has hit some regions and spared others.

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Those boomtowns with the gold-lined streets have a few things in common: low crime levels, stable public jobs, growing private jobs, rising housing prices, and rising income levels that allow people to buy homes.

Here are some of the nation's hottest housing markets.

*Spokane, Wash.: Relocations to this wide-open city on the steppes of eastern Washington have pushed home prices up 12.6 percent a year here since 1991, the nation's highest rate.

*Madison, Wis.: This state capital and college town has lured a number of software and biotechnology companies to relocate here, pushing the unemployment rate down to 1.9 percent, the nation's lowest level. The annual growth rate for housing prices is 9.8 percent.

*Denver: The airport is complete, the stadium is built, and the slump is over, with companies like Martin Marietta Corporation expected to add 21,000 jobs this year. Housing prices have jumped 9.5 percent a year.

In search of better times

But overall, the housing market is in a slump, says Jim Irvine, president of the Washington-based National Association of Home Builders and a home builder in Portland, Ore. While there are bright spots like Peoria, Ill., and Las Vegas, Nev., where homes sell overnight, he says, most Americans trying to sell homes are waiting for better times.

The Federal Reserve Board has put these better times off by ratcheting up the bank lending rate seven times in the last year as a way to keep consumer spending -- and inflation -- down.

The market for new homes nationwide is sluggish, as this month's Commerce Department report showed. Housing starts fell 3.7 percent, from a 1.32 million-a-year pace in February to a 1.21 million-a-year pace in March.

Floods in California accounted for the greatest regional drop (down 20.7 percent in the West), and may have brought the overall average down. Only the Northeast -- where the weather was mild this winter -- saw a rebound, with a 3.8 percent increase in new construction over February.

By contrast, the market for existing homes is relatively healthy, with sales of single-family homes totaling 3.62 million in March, up 5.8 percent from the month before. The National Association of Realtors said low interest rates encouraged the rise in sales, but noted that sales were still below the 4.11 million level of March 1994.

When a person has a choice of two jobs -- one in Lima, Ohio, and the other in San Francisco -- affordability may be the deciding factor.

Median income levels are modest in Lima (at $38,600), but the median price of a home is also low ($57,000). San Francisco, by contrast, offers a slightly higher paycheck ($57,600) but a much higher home price ($285,000). In these terms, Lima is clearly the better buy.

Galloping prices

But some places that have been affordable in the past are now seeing rapid price increases.

Peter Barcher, a lifelong New Yorker and former administrator at the Rochester Institute of Technology, decided to take time off to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison. For the first year he rented an apartment to scan the housing market, and eventually had a condominium made to his specifications.

''The price of the unit was $135,000 when I first looked at it, but it rose to $160,000 in four months,'' which prompted him to buy, he says. One unit remains in the condo development, at $190,000.

The housing market in Madison has become so strong, he says, that many people don't even bother listing their properties.

''I ran into a local couple, who said they were only looking for housing by word of mouth,'' Mr. Barcher says. ''It drives the realtors crazy.''

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