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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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5. The Hottest House in Town

What attributes make a house move fast in this market? In Rowayton, Baker notes the popularity of what most people call Nantucket shingle-style houses—traditional facades that reflect the relaxed beach-style community that this unique part of Norwalk embodies. He also mentions that in the fast-moving, $750,000 to $1 million category in Rowayton in 2013, buyers chose some properties that needed a bit of work, which makes the community unique among our three real estate areas. In Darien and New Canaan, new or recently updated homes are more popular. “While there are exceptions,” says Bubbico, “most New Canaan buyers aren’t looking for a project. People don’t have the time, and the cost of a renovation is hard to predict.”

Asked to pick his hottest property last year, Kelly showed a 4,800-square-foot house in mid-country Darien listed at $2.495 million. Built in 1970, this pristine six-bedroom Colonial embodied great value—beautifully cared for and recently renovated (2009) to modern standards, with the popular Christopher Peacock kitchen that many buyers admire. Over in New Canaan, De Palo reports many first-time buyers and those who want to downsize are actively seeking homes near town that are updated and in turnkey condition. “We can definitely sell more of these in the under-$1.75 million category,” she says.

6. Buyers: Be Ready for Action

“Successful buyers have all their ducks firmly in a row,” says Bubbico. And De Palo notes that first-time buyers in particular need to be aware that the best way to get a deal is to be the best-qualified bidder. Preapproval for your mortgage, with paperwork done and a home inspector lined up for the moment you’re ready to bid, can put you in the running with those kings of the marketplace—the buyers who are ready to put down cash. Good preparation also can be critical if you find yourself in a bidding war for the home of your dreams. Sellers will nearly always pick the buyer who is able to act with speed. And by the way, the old prequalified status won’t cut it in the current market. Fay reminds prospective buyers that “the documents are endless these days,” so pulling all the financials together and securing approval from your mortgage company before you start looking is the wisest approach. “Having an insurance agent and attorney at the ready to work on your behalf is also helpful,” says Fay.

7. House Candy + Other Attractive Amenities

At the luxury level—$4 million and above—buyers will find amenities to match the asking price. Kelly has seen listed properties with beautifully equipped outdoor kitchens (complete with patios, dining areas and fireplaces) and extravagant fitness areas that are as well designed as the rest of the house. For entry- and mid-level homes, De Palo and Bubbico both remark on the space inside the entry: Many families will appreciate a well-organized, functional and attractive mudroom. “A place to put away all the clothing and equipment that can accumulate in a hallway is very appealing,” says De Palo. That could be why formality seems to be slipping away, as the living and dining rooms shrink to make way for relaxed gathering spaces. “Dining rooms and living rooms have gotten smaller in importance, while a big family room and kitchen with a breakfast area are attractive to young buyers,” says Bubbico.

Another feature on the priority list  for many buyers is equipment to keep the house running when a storm knocks out power in the neighborhood. The need for these types of systems has been underscored in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and other locally wild weather in recent years, making them more popular than ever. Says Kelly, “Generators are probably the number one accoutrement in all price categories.”

8. Wanted: More Inventory

And there is more good news for those potential sellers who have been mulling over the idea of listing their homes while still sitting on the fence. In all three towns, agents report too tight a supply in the categories where movement has been brisk. So, what gives? “Many people who would normally contemplate trading up within their community after a few years have simply been staying put. Yet those buyers are typically an important part of a normal real estate market,” says Kelly.  Now, with the economic outlook improving to a degree, everything may start to loosen up, with sellers finally moving off the sidelines and creating some as yet unrealized potential for a very good 2014 as pent-up demand encounters increased supply.

9. Bring Your Own Builder

Sometimes buyers are looking for a dream house they can’t seem to find, and so search instead for land to build on or a house that can be gut-renovated or replaced. Because the process will require one or more building professionals, De Palo says her office is noticing a new wrinkle in the house-hunting repertoire: buyers partnering with their builders or architects when they go looking at property with the realtor. Having professionals in the mix so early can be very helpful, as builders or architects can often see more clearly than their clients whether a property meets the requirements of the house that the buyers want to build or change. Taking this approach can speed things up once the purchase is made.

10. A New Reality on the Waterfront

“How did it do in Sandy?” That’s one of the first questions Kelly will hear when he shows a waterfront home in Darien or Rowayton. “Sellers need to address the vulnerabilities,” he says. A redrawn FEMA flood zone map has impacted not only the cost of federal flood insurance, but may also create some skittishness about coverage by primary insurers. Fay advises buyers to get questions about a property’s insurability answered right away, along with an understanding of the costs. While a modification or delay of substantial increases in the cost of federal flood insurance is still being debated in Congress—our local Congressman, Jim Hines, is one of the representatives attempting to deal with this issue—some homeowners have taken concrete measures to fortify their homes against future flooding.

Nick Frate, a partner in Fox Hill Builders in Darien, just completed a job that raised a client’s home above flood zone levels. Using Wolfe House & Building Movers in Pennsylvania, the contractor lifted the house and literally built a new, higher foundation, then set it back on the newly fortified support system. “It can be complex,” notes Frate. A structural engineer, architect, and numerous permits are required, in addition to the building mover. In the simplest scenario, a foundation on a sufficiently firm footing can be added and the house put back into place. When pilings are necessary, the old foundation is removed, pilings installed, and then a new foundation is built, before the house is again lowered into place. Such a process is not inexpensive, but increasingly homeowners on valuable shorefront lots want to protect their residences from potential damage, rather than arguing with insurers or having difficulty selling in the future.