The farther Kristina Choquette and her husband, Carl, drove up Burlington’s North Avenue, the better she felt about buying a home.
Past Hannaford and the Bagel Café and the other businesses on North Avenue, the Choquettes entered a neighborhood stuck in the 1950s, marked by tall, mature trees, kids riding their bikes, and a waving mail carrier. Kristina Choquette, 49, felt like she was back home on Long Island where she grew up.
“It was a fantastic feeling, right away we were drawn to it,” she said.
The neighborhood had that same “beachy” vibe Choquette remembered from her childhood. Standing outside the Cape-style home on the corner of North Avenue and Westward Drive, Choquette opened the door and stepped into the kitchen.
“It feels homey,” she said, smiling.
Choquette and her husband paid $217,000 for the 1,240 square foot house, and joined the latest buyers to take advantage of a resurgent real estate market across the state.
Kristina Choquette is vice president of operations for Vermont Information Technology Leaders in Burlington. Carl Choquette, 55, is a master carpenter with his own business in Vershire, where the couple built a small home. They closed on their two-bedroom Burlington home with a detached single-car garage at the end of last week, putting an end to Kristina Choquette’s long commute.
“It was built in 1952, which according to my husband is a great year for housebuilding.” Choquette said of their new home.
A mid-year market report from Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty for Northwest Vermont was full of good news.
“The type of healthy sales and pricing trends that were typical before the recession are returning to our region in 2015, thanks to a rebounding local economy, historically low interest rates, and a new influx of first-time homebuyers,” the report stated.
Hickok & Boardman backed up its optimism with statistics. Sales overall jumped 13.7 percent in the first six months of the year, with more sales in all four counties — Chittenden, Franklin, Addison and Grand Isle. The median sales price rose 5.7 percent.
In Chittenden County, Hickok & Boardman reported 889 homes sold in the first six months of the year, up more than 18 percent from 2014, with a median sales price of $265,500.
Franklin County saw only a 1.4 percent increase in homes sold, moving 219 homes with a median price of $196,000.
In Grand Isle County, 47 homes sold at a median price of $210,000, up 6.8 percent in units sold from 2014.
In Addison County 133 homes sold, up 10.8 percent in units sold, at a median price of $214,000.
Houses were on the market for an average of 88 days in Chittenden County while it took an average of 209 days to move a house in Grand Isle County.
“The market is on fire, the market is booming right now,” said Bill Desautels of Re/Max North Professionals.
Maura Collins, director of policy and administration at Vermont Housing Finance Agency, did her own statewide analysis of the housing market, using property transfer tax data from the state.
“I saw that volumes are up across the board for every county except for Franklin,” Collins said. “Franklin had a 15 percent decrease in volume. It is the outlier, the only county with a decrease in 2015 over 2014.”
The discrepancy in Collins’ analysis of Franklin County and Hickok & Boardman’s analysis, which showed a 1.4 percent increase in homes sold, is explained by the fact that the Hickok & Boardman report used data from the MLS listings of all sales handled by professional real estate agents.
Collins found prices up by 6 percent statewide, very close to Hickok & Boardman’s 5.7 percent increase. She found prices up by 7 percent in Chittenden County.
“Interestingly, in Franklin County, where we were talking about volume dropping, I have prices up by 12 percent,” Collins said.
The housing crash is far enough in the past that buyers are confident again, according to Tom Heney, executive vice president and general manager of Four Seasons, Sotheby’s International Realty.
“We have recovered and the economy is stronger,” Heney said. “Finally people are feeling comfortable within the economy and they’re making decisions accordingly.”
Heney segments the market by price, and tracks inventory levels by the number of months it would take to sell every available home in a particular price range. For houses under $400,000, it would take just under four months, which makes it a seller’s market.
“That’s the level where we have been seeing competitive offers for homes,” Heney said. “Good homes don’t stay on the market long.”
Jay Strausser, a sales associate for Four Seasons, is more blunt about the lack of inventory under $400,000.
“The inventories are unbalanced,” Strausser said. “You’re finding some balance in the middle around $400,000, but get under $400,000, and particularly under $250,000, forget about it.”
Heney lumps together homes in the $400,000 to $900,000 range and calls it the executive market.
“The range of that market is 18 to 20 months worth of inventory,” Heney said. “It gives a little bit of power to the buyer. It’s not a runaway buyer’s market but it favors them because they have choice.”
Finally, there’s the luxury market of million dollar homes and above, where Heney said the available inventory is in the two- to three-year range. Lakefront properties, like the one owned by Michael and Denise Metz at 6 Turtle Moon Road in Charlotte, are moving even more slowly.
As the Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty report notes, high-end buyers are increasingly looking for homes in or close to Burlington “because of the desire to be near restaurants, the arts, and the University of Vermont Medical Center.” Not necessarily on the lake.
Walk the perimeter
Jay Strausser, who is selling the Metz’s home, said there has yet to be a sale of lakefront property in Charlotte this year, particularly in the $2 million range. The Metzs have their 6,500-square-foot home on 5.1 acres with 580 feet of lakefront on the market for $1.95 million, about $300,000 below its appraised value of between $2.2 million and $2.3 million.
“When you get close to $2 million you’re talking about 1 in 250 buyers,” Strausser said. “It could take up to four years to sell your house, depending on how you’re positioned. These are very smart people. They’re realistic in their expectations, but for an offer to come in and negotiate is a real challenge.”
The Metz home is nestled in a grove of mature trees on McNeil Cove, near the ferry to Essex, New York. Inside, the 1991 home feels a little dated, but the open floor plan and high ceilings give a sense of space, with rooms and hallways winding in and around interior fluted columns and up and down staircases leading to more bedrooms (there are four) offices (two) and a family room covering nearly 1,000 square feet. Artwork abounds.
Nearly every room has a piece of the lake reflecting through a window, or bank of windows, with an outside deck overlooking the beachfront and a towering shagbark hickory, twisted and gnarled like something out of a fairy tale.
In the kitchen a massive piece of granite from Spain, with unusual colors and patterns resembling sunbursts, dominates the space open to an expansive living room overlooking the cove. This is where family life was centered before the couple’s two boys left home to begin lives of their own, Michael Metz says.
“To me the best part of the property we’re going to see now,” he says, stepping outside into the humid afternoon. “We’ll walk some of the perimeter.”
Soaring pines mix with maples and more shagbark hickory. Over the 25 years the couple has lived on the property, they’ve cleared the undergrowth, leaving a park-like atmosphere. On the beach, there were “many a bonfire, treasure hunt and capture the flag,” when their sons were young, Denise Metz says.
The couple bought the property in 1986, with only a three-car garage and upstairs apartment in place. Michael Metz had just sold his family’s metallurgy business in New Jersey to a German company. Both of the Metzs had long careers in New York City before making the move to Vermont. Denise Metz was a defense attorney.
“It was wonderfully interesting, crazy work and I loved it, but no real lifestyle,” she said.
Middlebury College had brought the couple together, and now it brought them back to Vermont.
“We built the home because I had sold a business and we wanted to relocate,” Michael Metz said. “I had deep roots in Vermont, having gone to Middlebury College. I had good friends here. We liked the community and the scale.”
“We wanted to raise our kids here,” added Denise Metz.
Now, she says, they’re “two older people, banging around a lot of space.” The couple is building a much smaller home in South Burlington, on a half-acre of lakefront property, 20 minutes closer to Burlington.
Jay Strausser is delighted to see the Metzs staying in Vermont, because he has seen many others in their social and economic demographic leave.
“I believe it matters,” Strausser said. “The fundamentals in the economy are not really solid in the state of Vermont. There’s a lot of variables to all this but the cost of living, the education tax, all that goes with it, and the fact that we’re all getting old and gray. We raised our kids and they can’t afford to stay here. The jobs aren’t here.”
A difficult dream
The little Cape the Choquettes bought on North Avenue was originally listed at $236,900, but didn’t make its appraisal, said Kathy O’Brien of Four Seasons Sotheby’s International Realty, the Choquettes’ agent.
Despite the robust market, the great condition of the home, and the appeal of the neighborhood, the appraiser judged the Cape to be worth $217,000. O’Brien was baffled.
“Here’s this cute little Cape, the house is solid and our market in Burlington has been off the charts in this price category,” she said. “Anything under $350,000 is a no-brainer. It sells unless it’s a real dump. Here’s an adorable house that belongs in ‘My Three Sons,’ or ‘Leave It To Beaver.'”
The overly cautious approach taken by appraisers these days is explained by the 2008 crash, O’Brien said.
“This is a product of the recession, when the appraisers had their butts kicked,” she said. “Not in our wonderful honest state, but in other states there was so much collusion between mortgage brokers and appraisers they weren’t even looking at the houses. They were pushing mortgages through and the underwriters, wherever they were, were signing off.”
Since the recession, real estate agents have had to sharpen their game and stay on top of every deal. When the North Avenue Cape didn’t appraise, O’Brien and the seller’s agent had to engineer a fix. The seller was unemployed and moving to get a better job. She didn’t have a lot of wiggle room, so the Choquettes agreed to pay $3,000 above the appraised value.
“Because the seller was between a rock and a hard place the buyer coughed up additional funds,” O’Brien said. “The sale on paper was for $217,000. We stayed on top of communication to make sure people didn’t get paranoid and panicked.”
O’Brien estimates about one in five homebuying transactions goes through without some sort of complication like the one the Choquettes faced. The market is back, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“I don’t care about the price point, it could be $200,000, it could be $2 million, real estate is now about bringing the entire deal to closing,” O’Brien said. “You hit inspection issues, you hit appraisal issues, owners don’t have a clue how complicated it has become. The American dream of owning a home is way too difficult.”
But still worth it, says Kristina Choquette. As she climbs the narrow stairs to the second floor of her Cape, an open space extending uninterrupted on both sides of the stairwell with a new faux-wood floor glistening in the late afternoon sun, Choquette talks about how her daughter could move back when she returns from the Peace Corps in Paraguay. Her daughter wants to attend the University of Vermont and is thinking about medical school.
“I think she’d really be happy up here,” Choquette says.
Source: Burlington Free Press