Over 200 prospective buyers recently lined up to peruse a home across the street from a park in Ardmore, leaving the sellers with multiple offers to sift through. In Tredyffrin Township, a young couple had so many showings they took their two toddlers to visit the grandparents for a few days. And in Media, bidders are going so far as supplying personal photos to sellers.
Yes, it’s been a flush 12 months for residential real estate in our region, with would-be buyers and their agents having to devise strategies for how to win desirable properties. “Interest rates are less than 3.5 percent—the lowest I’ve ever seen—and it’s driving buyers onto the market,” says Gary Scheivert, associate broker at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Media. (This was before the federal government reduced interest rates to essentially zero to quell coronavirus panic.) “The problem is inventory is very low, and we have more buyers than sellers.”
It’s the strongest seller’s market he’s seen, and Scheivert’s been selling in our area for over 30 years. Like that home in Ardmore convenient to a park, demand is especially high in walkable communities. “West Chester, Kennett Square and Media are very popular,” he says. “Today, the family fantasy is to walk into town for pizza, get ice cream, and walk home.”
The paucity of inventory is a complex equation consisting partly of demographics and partly of psychology. This year, realtors were seeing earlier buyer turnouts, likely spurred by a warm winter.
And fewer owners are selling and heading to retirement communities. “Older people are healthier and staying in their houses longer,” says Scheivert. “It’s not unusual for someone who is 75 to be active and maintaining a home. Those cute little capes in Devon and Wayne aren’t coming on the market.”
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Nor are people moving as frequently as they used to. “In the early 2000s, people stayed in their homes for an average of seven years. Now, it’s 12 to 13 years,” says John Flanagan of Compass Real Estate in Ardmore.
To give buyers a head start, Compass keeps clients apprised of what’s coming on the market before homes hit the multiple listing service. Many are snapped up before they even make the MLS, Flanagan says, pointing to a 5,000-square-foot house near Linwood Park in Ardmore that had been renovated from top to bottom and sold for $950,000 before the paint was dry.
To keep up with competing bids, Flanagan counsels buyers to set up an escalation addendum that allows for incremental increases in offers to the seller. “Essentially the buyer is authorizing the agent to offer more money—typically increments between $2,000 and $5,000—to compete with other buyers,” he says.
Increased bids help, but Flanagan also encourages buyers to write a letter to the seller, praising the property and telling the owners why they dream of living there. Those aforementioned photos help, too.
After all, families are often the reason for moves. Such was the case for Blaire and Joel Epstein, who met in college, got married and bought a condo in Philadelphia five years ago. They loved living in the city, but with a 1-year-old daughter, they figured it was time to move to a larger home with a yard. “The Main Line is family friendly, with its great schools, libraries with activities for toddlers and kids, music classes, and more,” says Blaire.
They found it in a well-loved, well-maintained 1936 Penn Valley home that has five bedrooms, seven baths, a wood-paneled study and climate-controlled wine storage. They’re currently renovating it to suit their young family.
Family ties are important when selecting a home. That’s something Pamela Oswik knows well. The realtor with Duffy Real Estate lives in the same Narberth twin where her father was raised. Her mother grew up just on the other side. “My father’s mother was Irish, and my mom’s mother was Italian,” she says. “Every Sunday, one grandmother would make Irish stew and the other grandmother would make a big Italian dinner—and they would trade dishes.”
Thanks to its compact downtown and ready access to the train, Narberth is experiencing a boom. Home prices have risen 15 percent in the past year to a median sales price of $496,198, according to the Suburban West Realtors Association and the MLS. “People love our community, our front porches,” Oswick says. “They walk their dogs; they walk to yoga; they walk to restaurants and the coffee shop.”
For the first time, home prices in Narberth have edged above the $1 million mark thanks to large new-construction homes. But existing properties—including rowhomes, twins and single-family houses—are in demand, too. “You can get a cute three bedroom, one-bath rowhome for $300,000,” says Oswik. “If you can bear doing a little work or making modifications, there are opportunities for affordable homes.”
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While many buyers are intent on finding homes in move-in condition with as much square footage as they can afford, a growing number are opting for smaller yards. “People are so busy with work, they don’t have time to fix up a house,” says Maureen Sexton of Long & Foster in Haverford, who’s also a member of Suburban West Realtors Association’s board of directors. “They also don’t want to put a lot of time and money into the yard. Just enough room for a deck or patio and a swing set is fine.”
The most competitive price range for such properties—often for those moving from twins or starter homes—is between $500,000 and $800,000. But there are great properties available for less. “You might find a starter home for under $350,000—maybe a twin in Ardmore or Narberth,” says Sexton.
For those with a budget over $400,000, Bala Cynwyd and Wynnewood are within range, while $500,000 will get you into Berwyn, Bryn Mawr, Devon and Wayne. Median prices in Lower Merion and Radnor are over $600,000, according to the MLS and Suburban West. “Condos are also popular with people who have a second home down the Shore or in Florida,” Sexton says.
A two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit at Paoli Pointe recently sold for $212,000. The median price is in the high $800,000s for Athertyn Condos at Haverford Reserve, a 55-plus community with a heated pool and a park-like setting.
Other communities popular with first-time buyers include Chester Springs, Downingtown, Exton, Havertown, Media, Phoenixville and West Chester. In Exton, where the median home price is $430,000, the inventory of resale inventory is bolstered by new construction. Waterloo Reserve, a Lennar community, offers carriage houses starting at $485,000. In Phoenixville, with a median price of $337,950, the range includes circa-1900 in-town rowhouses for around $200,000, newer semi-detached homes in the mid-$300,000s, and suburban single-family homes at $500,000 and up.
Part of desirable Haverford Township, Havertown is attractive for young families, thanks to its many parks and playing fields. It’s also more affordable, with prices for single-family homes starting in the mid-$200,000s. With a median home price of $444,500, Media offers a variety of options, from vintage twins in the $300,000s near downtown to stately homes priced at more than $1 million.
In Chester County, historic Chester Springs offers homes at a median price of $574,950, including a sprinkling of new construction. Recent listings range from a circa-1890 retreat on 63 acres for $3.4 million to a four-bedroom townhouse priced at $269,000. In nearby Downingtown, a brick twin in the borough can be had for less than $200,000. Expect to pay up to $700,000 in suburban developments.
Red-hot West Chester resonates with buyers who want to reside in the borough’s lively, walkable downtown, along with those looking for larger homes away from the bustle. With inventory on the low side, expect a median price of just under $450,000.
Though price is important, it isn’t the only thing that matters to sellers. Finding out what makes the seller tick is a decided advantage. “Is it the settlement date? Contingencies? Sellers have their own individual priorities,” says Sue Fitzgerald of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Malvern.
Even in a seller’s market, homes that are cluttered or in disrepair tend to languish on the MLS. And don’t keep prospective buyers waiting for an appointment. Fitzgerald recently advised a frazzled couple with young kids to go on a brief family vacation. “We showed the house as many as seven times a day,” she says. “When they came home, they had multiple offers to review.”