For Westport Magazine’s annual review of the local real estate market, we look at who’s buying and selling homes as well as changes in downtown Westport that influence where and why people and businesses make a move. We include insights on both segments, residential and commercial, from the professionals who consider the challenges and opportunities every day. If you’re even thinking of listing or looking, read on.
Last year had more than a few people threatening to move to Canada, but, as it turns out, plenty of folks are still making their home—and buying homes—in Connecticut. Realtors do not expect the popularity of Fairfield County to fade anytime soon. And within this coveted county, Westport is sitting pretty—never mind the superficial depiction on American Housewife.
“I’m pretty bullish on 2018, and I think my agents are too,” says Beverly Walsh, manager of William Raveis’s Westport office. “A year with a new president is always tenuous in terms of real estate. We are past that now.”
The new tax law did bring bad news on the mortgage interest deductibility front. Now new buyers can deduct interest on a total of $750,000 in mortgage debt, rather than $1 million. (Existing mortgages are not subject to the reduced limit.) Although the East and West coasts, with more homes in the $1 million range, will be most affected by this change, realtors here do not expect major repercussions.
Mike Daversa, president CT Division of GuardHill Financial Corp., comments: “In Fairfield County, there are a lot of mortgages that are $750,000 or more. Before you could buy a house for $1.3 million, put $300,000 down, and still have maximum mortgage deductibility. The new law will force people to put more money down to get it to the $750,000 mark. I think that’s what you’ll see more of, rather than people buying lower price homes. It will affect the mortgage industry, as we’ll see much less refinancing.”
Mary Crist, office leader at Berkshire Hathaway’s Westport office, says, “There hasn’t been much change in the market over the past few years. We had a slight increase in sales last year, but the average sold price is down. I don’t see anything in the economic environment that will cause a dramatic shift up or down. We still have incredibly low mortgage rates.”
Supply has been outweighing demand, leading to some depreciation and price adjustment. To Victoria Fingelly of William Pitt Sotheby’s, that’s good news: “I’m more excited about 2018 than I have been for the past few years. I think we’ll see more sales, especially on the high end. The over $20-million market is moving now because the buyers are there and the pricing is realistic.”
Location or Condition?
The chatter about Connecticut tends to be negative—high tax rates, big corporations leaving, empty-nesters relocating out of state—but many agents highlight the positive aspects that are often underplayed: lower taxes than New York or New Jersey, companies moving in, unbeatable amenities
Rick Higgins of the Higgins Group predicts the area will become a “Silicon East, with Stamford as its vortex. Some tech companies are there already, and it’s only a matter of time before more come. RBS and UBS are there. Charter’s new headquarters will bring 1,100 jobs. It’s ideally located between the city and the countryside. When I was living in New York City, Connecticut was the shining city on the hill that people wanted to move to. I think that’s still true.”
Michelle Genovesi of Michelle&Company, who has been a realtor here for thirty-two years, adds, “I think lower Fairfield County will always be steady; there’s such an influx of the New York commuter.” She, like a number of agents, pinpoint Westport as particularly popular. “It’s a great town, which continues to be very influenced by the arts and culture. It has a great sense of community. It’s on the beach. It has a great commute. Lots of restaurants have opened up by the train, and we have Bedford Square in town. I’m optimistic it will only get stronger. We’re finding a trend now toward lifestyles that are close to the beach or walking distance to town. People are looking for a sense of community. That’s because our lives today are so busy with the internet and technology; we are so connected, we are disconnected. So those homes are selling faster and for more.”
Higgins says, “I have a lot of confidence in Westport. It’s always a good town, even during recessions. I have so much faith there that we’ve invested in a new office in Bedford Square. It’s very expensive, but I think it’s worth it.”
What about Wilton and Weston? “They’re quiet. People want to be closer to the train, downtown and the water,” Higgins says. “The pendulum will swing, though. People living by the beach will want more space and privacy as their kids get older.”
Fears that recent hurricanes would send buyers fleeing from the water haven’t materialized. “The beach remains one of Westport’s most desirable areas, but buyers do want updated and FEMA-compliant homes,” Mary Crist comments. “Raised homes sell much faster.”
According to Marc Calderone at William Pitt Sotheby’s, new construction is bringing buyers to Westport. “New construction represents 33 percent of our market,” he explains, “which is much more than in surrounding towns. Buyers moving from New York don’t want to do any fixing up. Their preference is for new homes.”
Linda Blackwell at Houlihan Lawrence agrees that condition is actually a bigger factor than location. “Buyers want houses that are updated and move-in ready,” she says. “You’ll hear sweeping comments like people no longer want to live north of the Merritt or they want to live in town. But those areas with smaller lots are where builders have gone to since the recession. It’s not that no one wants to live in more remote areas; it’s just more likely houses in those areas have not been decoratively changed in fifteen or twenty years. As realtors, we always say lower the price and people will be willing to do the work, but I’m finding that people don’t want to do the work and they mean it. Sellers need to be smart. It’s easier to spend a few thousand for painting than take a $10,000 to $50,000 price reduction.”
Role of Technology
“Looking for a home is a whole different ballgame than ten years ago,” says Pam Foarde of Filippone Associates in Southport. “You can go online and see amazing photos, videos, 3D renderings. You can be living in England, looking in Fairfield, and you can almost put yourself in the house.” She warns about using sites like Zillow without an agent’s guidance, though. “Zillow will give an average of what’s sold in a one-mile radius, but they don’t know the story. One short sale can really throw off the average.”
Michelle Genovesi concurs. “People are more educated and cautious, but there is so much info out there nowadays, it’s almost overwhelming. That’s why realtors are important; they can dissect all that information for you.”
“Technology is accelerating the way brokers are able to organize and connect prospects to listings and greatly accelerate how transactions are facilitated,” points out Chris Raveis, president of Residential Sales for William Raveis. “Data mining and marketing and sourcing buyer and seller prospects has also become more accessible as technology advances.”
Stroll down charming Church Lane on a chilly eve these days and it feels like a Hans Christian Andersen story has sprung to life. All fears that the 60,000-square-foot Bedford Square development would turn downtown into a commercial eyesore melt away like snowflakes on the sidewalk in front of the refurbished Tudor façade.
Enter through the doors of the 40,000-square-foot anchor tenant, Anthropologie, and Hans is no longer the author, yet the story is every bit as captivating. The chain’s blog boasts: “Nestled in beautiful Westport, Connecticut, our latest Anthropologie is our dream store come true. Complete with one-of-a-kind décor from our talented visual team, it boasts everything from exclusive apparel collections to insider beauty finds, custom furniture to handcrafted ceramics, designer bridal gowns to work-of-art shoes.” It is something to see.
“Bedford Square is now 86 percent occupied,” says developer David Waldman of David Adam Realty. “An 8,500-square-foot Williams-Sonoma, including Home, will open in April. Whip Salon, Barbour, Higgins Group and HSBC have all signed on as well. Also, he adds that the owners of WAFU will be opening a noddle bar/Korean BBQ restaurant.
According to Waldman, about half the residential units had been rented as of December. With rent ranging from $3,500 for a one-bedroom to $11,000 for a 2,500-square-foot duplex, tenants are not balking at the price. “It’s the only product of its sort in the downtown market,” says Waldman. “We expected empty-nesters and snowbirds who want a footprint here but not a big home anymore. We are also finding young families coming from New York and renting here so they can evaluate the market before buying. It’s much more of a New York–oriented than suburban development.”
Last June, the Chamber of Commerce honored Waldman with a First Citizen award, commending him for “a true vision for what can be done through adaptive reuse and specific choices in development.” He was the only Westport resident on the project and has seen resistance from the community turn to appreciation. “Once Bedford Square was completed, people realized that what we said we were going to do, we did,” he reasons.
Paul Brandes, principal of Charter Realty & Development, a partner on the project, notes: “What people don’t always realize is that Bedford Square took ten years of effort from all of the partners. It is by no means a run-of-the-mill redevelopment. We just finished the Serena & Lily building, on the opposite side of the street—a historic renovation.” The circa 1889 Queen Anne Victorian known as the Kemper Gunn House was saved from the wrecking ball by a petition and now reigns over the Elm Street parking lot with a cheery and fresh countenance.
Dan Zelson, fellow principal of Charter, echoes Brandes’s emphasis on the time and care that went into Bedford Square. “Historically, this town has been very difficult to get approvals,” he says. “It’s a tough environment. We are thrilled with the outcome.” Charter’s office on Church Lane is well situated for Zelson to appreciate the “synergy” he expects to see as spaces are occupied.
Around the Corner
Nearby, Sconset Square is undergoing a facelift by new owners David Adam Realty and Roger Leifer Properties. “We are in the process of doing a little tenant shuffling and beginning some architectural improvements,” says Waldman. “We will bring the center to a higher level of detail, but it will still be a very quaint home furnishings and design/decorating center.”
Leifer, a forty-year Westport resident, has played a role in the development of some of Westport’s most treasured structures, including the Westport Country Playhouse, the Levitt Pavilion and the Compo Beach playground. “I try to be heavily involved in making Westport a better place to live and work,” he says. His office sits next to the Spotted Horse Tavern in a 1799 building that he restored. He would like to see “more activities for families and shoppers downtown.” Both he and Waldman are also involved in the Westport Cinema Initiative, which is seeking funding to put a movie theater in town.
As Ann Taylor, Nike, Diptyque and Allen Edmonds announce plans to shut their doors on Main Street, Skip Lane of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate services company, has some ideas on how to enliven the area. “I would take the farmer’s market and put it on Main Street on the weekends and close traffic,” he says. “The type of retail that is there is no longer sustainable on its own. A combination of a correction in price [rent] and a different experience is probably the answer.” While the chains depart, with some heading to the new mall in Norwalk and some being devoured by online shopping, there is a silver lining. “Local and regional businesses that were priced out of Main Street now may be able to come in again,” says Lane.
Waldman, along with Greenfield Partners, are busy with developments on the old Save The Children site. The office building is expected to be completed this May and (pending final approvals this March) sixteen luxury condos designed by Roger Ferris & Partners will rise on the northern portion of the site. Plans include public access to a newly extended boardwalk (along with public parking) as well as a ninety-foot view corridor.
Leifer concludes that Westport “can’t be stuck in the past. It has to evolve, grow and change.”