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The Real Estate Survival Guide

Yes, homes are moving, but it’s still a tricky market. Here’s what buyers and sellers need to know

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1. Be Cautiously Optimistic

Last year’s extremely quiet upmarket tier may be turning around as buyers of luxury properties dip a toe back into real estate. At Coldwell Banker, Arlene Bubbico, the current president of the New Canaan Board of Realtors, notes that there were five sales of properties priced in excess of $5 million in 2013, with several sales pending at the start of 2014.  This uptick bodes well for the market overall, as financial movers and shakers are feeling more positive about investments in real estate. Such optimism can prove infectious. In Darien, a marker of better times—the bidding war—has returned for some well-priced homes in the under-$2 million category. And in Rowayton, which as a section of the larger Norwalk geography is a micro-market compared to its neighbors, Bruce Baker, 2013’s top producer for William Pitt Sotheby’s International’s Darien/Rowayton office, notes brisk movement at the below $1 million segment of the market, with thirty-four units sold in 2013 in this price category, up from twenty-two homes in 2012. Everyone we polled reported tight inventory—well down from multiple-year averages. Jeff Kelly, a vice president at Kelly Real Estate in Darien, notes the need for supply, particularly in the heated under-$2 million category. “Right now [late January], we’ve got eighty-nine MLS listings; a normal market would have 150 to 200.” It’s a statistic that may at last bring music to sellers’ ears.

2. The Sweet Spot for Sales

For New Canaan and Darien, the most desirable price point can be found between $1 million and $2 million. Bubbico says people in New Canaan “are crazed” for a house in this range. Kelly agrees. In the Darien market, the under $2 million category is very active. And in Rowayton, the range between $750,000 and $1 million saw the greatest activity in the past year, with nineteen houses selling, contrasted with just eight sales in the same category in 2012. Gilllian De Palo, a vice president of sales at the New Canaan office of William Raveis, characterizes some typical buyers in this popular price range. “We’ve got those who want to move here from the city or other towns, as well as those who want to downsize from their larger homes to a smaller property that’s close to town, shopping and transportation.” Similarly, Baker notes that the Darien market—which has a large inventory of the desirable 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom homes on not-too-large lots—could benefit from more potential sellers in this category taking the leap and listing their homes.

3. Sellers: Pre-Market Prep is Key

“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” says De Palo. That means sellers should do whatever it takes to spruce up a property before the first prospective buyer and agent arrive at the door. Pay attention to interiors, especially entry halls and mudrooms. Freshen paint, buff wood floors, clean carpets and de-clutter. As to any structural or mechanical flaws, take care of these before you go ahead and list the house. A residence may be appealing cosmetically, but the unseen problems can cost you. “Even if you had a bidder win the deal above your asking price, small things could come back to haunt you after the buyer’s home inspection,” says Jake Fay, a sales manager at William Raveis in Darien, noting that small problems assessed at closing will affect your bottom line. “Just knock out these things before you list,” he advises. Another critical aspect of pre-market prep is the price-setting strategy. Working with your agent can make the difference between an offer and a pass. “Where your house sits in the price range is key,” says Kelly. “A $3-million house in Darien has more competition than the under-$2-million house because of the current supply situation. It’s important to stay up to date on the details of the market, and a good agent will keep you posted as the market moves or improves.”

4. The Big News is–Smaller

The ever-expanding floor plan may finally be shrinking a bit, as buyers discover they can fit comfortably in an easier-to-maintain, 4,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home, rather than one that is fifty percent larger. In price-conscious times, people are acutely aware that more space necessitates more upkeep, and with working couples coordinating busy schedules, the extra time and costs required for maintaining a big home may not be worth the effort. While some house hunters still like the privacy of multiple-acre properties and larger homes on country roads, others opt for smaller houses on smaller lots. “A four-bedroom on a half-acre is appealing to many Darien buyers,” says Fay. In Rowayton, where lots are small and houses closer together, both he and Baker note that a walkable distance to town, along with compact landscapes that require less maintenance, make for strong selling points.