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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Moving now to the west coast, in another economic soft spot, real estate. Nervous homebuilders have been eyeing San Diego to see just how soft the market is.

Well, NPR's Scott Horsley went to an auction there held by one of the nation's largest homebuilders, D.R. Horton. They sold off more than three dozen condos that had been on the market for quite a while. The condos went for an average of 30 percent below the peak asking price. Here's Scott Horsley's report.

SCOTT HORSLEY: About 300 people crowded into a hotel ballroom to hear a tuxedoed auctioneer say, this is your lucky day. Richard Ryan said later he felt lucky. He bought a one-bedroom condo for about $257,000, more than 30 percent below its previous high price.

RICHARD RYAN: It didn't get too crazy. And we even had prices sketched out. So I think we did okay. Yeah, we feel good about the price.

HORSLEY: The condo builder, D.R. Horton, wasn't anxious to publicize just how low prices would go. Cameras and microphones were barred from the auction hall. NPR registered as a bidder in order to attend. Still, the company appeared satisfied with the prices buyers were willing to pay. Midway through the auction, a second batch of condos was put on the block. The list prices on these condos were, no doubt, high to begin with. The price Ryan paid is only about six percent less than new condos in the neighborhood have actually been selling for this year. Darcy Mudd walked away from the auction disappointed the prices hadn't fallen even further.

DARCY MUDD: I mean, maybe it's a little bit lower than what D.R. Horton was last charging for them. But, still, for the market, it's overpriced. I'm going to wait a little while on that and see what's going to happen. I think this was a lot of show to get people into here and get excited about it. But I don't think it's a very good deal.

HORSLEY: The auction made headlines, not only in San Diego but across the country, at a time when homebuilders are struggling with their lowest sales in seven years.

Real Estate professor Norm Miller of the University of San Diego says that in a soft market like this, it can make sense for builders to cut their prices. At the same time, Miller says, the market seeing the sharpest drop in home prices now are the same ones that saw a steep run-up just a few years ago - mostly coastal markets like Miami, Washington, D.C., and San Diego. He pooh-poohs the idea that San Diego is some kind of national canary in the coal mine.

NORM MILLER: Most people aren't in this coal mine at all. The only people in the coal mines are the markets that went up 100 to 150 percent in the last seven years. Those are the markets that are soft now. Now, if you bought that home seven years ago, you're still way, way up. But if you bought that home one or two years ago, then you're in trouble.

HORSLEY: For those who bought at the peak of the market in San Diego a year or two ago, this auction may carry the sad realization that whatever equity they had on their home is now going, going, gone.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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