Tag Archives: Karen Scott

Real Estate: Novel Twist On Town’s Popular Activity

“Open House” signs are gone. Building inspectors wear hazmat suits. Renters will pay $40,000 a month for a home — but you can no longer rent for just 30 days.

Welcome to the new normal in one of Westport’s oldest obsessions: real estate.

The tried-and-true dance that long linked sellers, buyers and realtors has — like everything else in the world — been turned topsy-turvy by COVID-19.

But real estate professionals are flexible and creative. To get a sense of how they’re adapting, and the new Westport market, I turned to a veteran.

Karen Scott of KMS Partners @ Compass says the rental side is particularly interesting.

Westport has always had a thriving summer rental market — primarily at the beach, but elsewhere too for folks wanting a bit more yard for fun and entertaining. Our amenities are great, plus we’re a lot easier to get to (and cheaper than) the Hamptons.

The Compo Beach neighborhood is popular for renters.

Residents who rent out their properties often travel in summer, or head to second homes.

The pandemic hit New York right as renters were signing contracts. Suddenly, they were joined by others who did not care about Compo or cookouts. They just wanted to flee the city.

“Anything on the market was scooped up,” Scott says. People called realtors, friends in town, friends of friends — anyone they could think of.

A few more homes came on the market — by snowbirds who figured they’d stay south a bit longer, for instance — but prices shot up “overnight.” Suddenly, non-beach homes were renting for $25,000 to $40,000 a month. Some of those were previously unsold homes, which their owners converted to rentals.

That frantic pace has slowed somewhat, Scott says. But that does not mean there is much inventory.

Karen Scott

Meanwhile — as the prime summer rental season looms — people who always rented out their homes are reassessing their plans. They may not leave town this year.

Last week, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe issued an order prohibiting leases of less than 31 days. That further upends the traditional rental market.

Home sales are affected too. With college kids back, and homeowners working from home instead of commuting to distant cities for work, some owners took their properties off the market.

But there are still houses for sale. And, Scott says, “buyers are out shopping. They want something immediately.”

Some were already looking to settle in this summer, to get used to the town before school begins. The pandemic spurred others to make a move they may have been thinking of only casually. Very low interest rates make buying now an attractive option.

The process of showing — and seeing — a home has changed dramatically, notes Scott.

“Virtual” tours of a property — including 3D walk-throughs — now include less-sexy (but more practical) areas like pantries. To reduce personal interactions some homeowners are making their own videos, rather than relying on realtors or professionals.

Traditions like open houses have been upended. Casual looking is gone. “Anyone entering a home now is a serious buyer, not a weekend browser,” Scott says.

Some sellers don’t want anyone entering their home. Some have imposed strict rules, like only one potential buyer inside at a time; no touching allowed. Afterward, every surface, door knob and light switch gets wiped down anyway.

Some realtors stay outside, when the client goes in. Even so, all wear masks and gloves. Every interaction is discussed in advance. Realtors honor all requests, from sellers and buyers.

Of course, real estate transactions involve many other people. Scott says that building inspectors are being ultra-careful (like the one wearin a hazmat suit). Attorneys work remotely. Title searches — which must be done in person — can be a challenge.

But, Scott adds, “Everyone has been very collaborative. The entire real estate community puts safety first. It’s been very satisfying so far.”

Scott has been a realtor long enough to have seen dark, dismal times: 9/11 for example, and the Great Recession.

“When we’re in the thick of things, the future of real estate looks unknown and scary,” she says. “But we got through them. We will get through this. We can maneuver through prevailing winds. We deal with situations. We help people get whatever is needed done. We advise and guide, and we are doing that right now.”

Despite — or perhaps especially during — the current crisis, housing is an important need. Westport remains an attractive destination for many homebuyers.

And not just for its amenities. Potential buyers have seen the outpouring of spirit, by neighbors and strangers, during the pandemic. “They see and read about so much compassion, care and sense of community. They want to be part of this amazing place,” Scott says. “They see people doing things for each other and the town. It gives them hope.”

New Home Construction: Piggy Bank Or Used Car?

The other day, an “06880” reader e-mailed me in an agitated state. She complained that because home buyers these days want only new houses, realtors only take clients to see those properties. As a result, they sell for premium prices.

She cited a new 5,000-square foot home with a $3+ million price tag. A “pre-existing” house of the same size, style and quality fetches “only” $2.2-$2.4 million.

The e-mailer said that everyone wins: builders for obvious reasons; realtors because of higher commissions; the town because of higher taxes.

Except, of course, the seller. She described a new home that sold for $5.4 million in 2010. It went on the market this year for $4.295 million. That’s down more than $1 million — and it was first built and sold in the middle of the financial crisis.

This new home in the Compo Beach area is 4,569 square feet, on 0.52 acres. It's on the market for $4.975 million.

This new home in the Compo Beach area is 4,569 square feet, on 0.52 acres. It’s on the market for $4.975 million.

I could have an opinion on this. But it wouldn’t be based on anything close to actual knowledge or insight.

So I called 2 of Westport’s most experienced and respected realtors: KMS Partners at Coldwell Banker’s Karen Scott and Mary Ellen Gallagher. (Full disclosure: They are also good friends. And I coached their sons as Staples High School soccer players.)

The women said: Yeah. The e-mailer is right about the prices. Realtors often talk about this very subject.

However, they said, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

The phenomenon is not the fault of realtors, they said. It’s driven by buyers.

When prospective home-buyers start looking at existing homes, they may not find every amenity they expect. Existing homes may have smaller rooms, or lack the open floor plan of new homes.

Once they see new construction, every “older” home — even relatively new ones — pales by comparison.

Buyers start yearning for a totally new home. Newness becomes more important than anything else — even a busy street, or small lot.

The reality, Karen and Mary Ellen said, is that most buyers today understand they will pay a premium for new construction than a lower price for an already-lived-in home — even one that’s been lovingly maintained.

This Green's Farms area house was built in 2006 -- 10 years ago. It's 3,993 square feet, sits on 0.51 acres, and lists for $1.799 million.

This Green’s Farms area house was built in 2006 — 10 years ago. It’s 3,993 square feet, sits on 0.51 acres, and lists for $1.799 million.

But here’s the catch: New homes are not the “piggy banks” home buyers believe they should be. Homes are a commodity. Their market value is driven by various economic factors and market conditions — for example, supply and demand.

Think about a new car. The moment you drive it off the lot, it starts to depreciate.

It’s the same with new construction. The moment the first owners move in, it’s no longer “new.”

Unfortunately, Karen and Mary Ellen noted, some owners of new homes don’t realize that fact until they put their no-longer-new home on the market.

Realtors are in a tough spot. They may try to explain the reality of new-vs.-older construction. But many buyers — bedazzled by new homes — don’t want to hear it.

They figure they’ll enjoy their new home, and deal with the resale price many years down the road.

And, Karen and Mary Ellen admitted, builders would not be building at the rate they are if buyers were not buying.

So the next time you see a perfectly good “old” house torn down, and a brand-new home going up in its place, understand the reason: There’s a demand for that new construction.

Until it’s time to sell.

 

The Buzz About Real Estate

There’s a buzz in the Westport real estate market. It’s both real (the sound of new construction) and metaphorical (a swarm of buyers).

My anecdotal observation of the market — watching what’s going on around town, scanning sales numbers and prices — was confirmed by Karen Scott.

Karen — of KMS Partners at Coldwell Banker — is one of Westport’s savviest, energetic and experienced realtors. (Full disclosure: She’s also a friend. I have coached her 2 sons on the Staples soccer team, and am a huge fan of the entire Scott family.)

Karen says there’s a reason the local real estate market shows life for the first time since the tumble crash of 2007-08.

Interest rates are low, and should remain so for a while.

Some buyers are tired of renting. Others are tired of searching, and willing to commit.

Even the weather helps. Our North Carolina-ish winter has not only encouraged people to go outside and be active; it’s also kept them away from the ski slopes, giving them time search homes on the internet, then drive around to actually see them.

This Nantucket Shingle-stylel residence "captures water views from nearly every room." It's listed at $8,850,000.

In past years, the “spring market” — often the most active of the year — has taken place in May and June. This year, Karen says, it’s already begun.

Agents, mortgage lenders, buyers and sellers — all sense an increased level of activity” since New Year’s. “People are negotiating and making offers,” Karen says. “They’re no longer sitting on the fence.”

New construction is hot, particularly in the $2 million range.

“Westport has a love/hate relationship with new construction,” Karen says. “But for a while, there was no construction at all. It’s back, but with smaller homes and on smaller pieces of property” — 5,000 to 6,000 square feet, finished on 3 to 4 floors. The footprint is smaller than before, and there’s more interest in energy efficiency.

Westport remains attractive to New Yorkers and transferees from other parts of the country, Karen notes. We continue to attract global clients, with Chinese buyers new to the mix.

Like other buyers, they come for the schools, the proximity to New York and places like Yale, and the amenities.

Looking to enjoy the "Compo Beach lifestyle"? This house can be yours for $1,849,000.

“People love Compo and Longshore, the arts, the sports, everything for kids,” she says. Among the hot areas: the beach, and neighborhoods like Evergreen and Imperial Avenue that are close to town.

Saugatuck — with its new restaurants and other construction — is also drawing attention from buyers.

Tax rates too are very favorable — particularly in comparison with Westchester.

Sellers include empty nesters and homeowners downsizing, as well as the converse: young, growing families looking for bigger digs.

Westport has some foreclosures — though, Karen says, not on the scale of other places.

Prices have been fairly stable. Karen characterizes less-than-$1 million homes as “very hot.” The $1 million to $1.5 million range is “competitive.” Those between $2 million and $3 million are “tough sales.” The upper end — $5 million and up — has seen good recent action.

This "exquisitve Victorian farmhouse" recently sold for $2,495,000.

Despite the renewed interest, Karen is realistic. “Buying and selling in Westport is still a big financial transaction. People are cautious. They’re doing their due diligence more thoroughly than ever before.” Some good news: From a lending standpoint, Westport is considered a stable market.

Real estate is one of Westport’s favorite games. For several years, we’ve been on the losing end of that game.

Finally, it seems, buyers and sellers are playing ball again.