It seemed too good to be true.
Sure, the 100-year-old Tudor had incredible curb appeal, with its stone façade and impeccably manicured landscaping. And the interior, with its historic charm and gorgeous millwork, showed as well as the exterior. It also didn’t hurt that the home was an easy walk from downtown Ardmore—the sort of easy access that’s become a popular selling point with Main Line buyers of late.
Listing agent Liz Fondren was confident the house would sell quickly, though she never imagined it would be under contract its first day on the market. “An agent called me that night, and there were already two offers on the table,” says Fondren, a realtor with Prudential Fox & Roach in Haverford. “[The third set of potential buyers] didn’t even get the chance to put an offer in.”
The sellers even settled on an offer that was higher than their asking price. “It was unbelievable,” Fondren gushes. “It was like 2005 all over again.”
Eight years ago, local home sales were moving with the swiftness of a cheetah. By 2008, the market had slowed to the pace of a lazy, disinterested house cat. A number of well-publicized factors—rising unemployment, plummeting consumer confidence, the adjustable-rate mortgage debacle—contributed to the sluggishness. And while we didn’t endure the massive foreclosure dramas of the Sunbelt states, we experienced a downturn, nonetheless. Houses sat … And they sat … And they sat some more. Those who bought their homes when the market was at its peak were faced with the prospect of little, if any, return on their investment.
Then, at the close of 2011, there was a glimmer at the end of the tunnel. Exton realtor Lee Ann Embrey attributed a brisk winter real estate market to mild weather. “I was putting in offers on New Year’s Eve 2011, and the momentum carried through all of 2012,” says Embrey, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Preferred in Exton.
She describes sales last year as nothing less than “phenomenal,” but she hesitates to credit the strengthening economy. “I think there’s pent-up demand. People got tired of the doom and gloom,” Embrey says. “We have such a diverse economy with the universities and the pharmaceutical companies, so we were never as adversely impacted as other areas of the country. I’ve consistently increased my income each year, which is indicative of how real estate is doing in this area.”
Nationwide, 31 percent of homes that went on the market in December 2012 sold in less than a month, according to the National Association of Realtors. A year ago, that figure was 22 percent. Home sales in August 2012 were up 4.6 percent over the same time last year, the largest spike since July 2006.
For Embrey, the year has started out strong. She was named top sales agent at her office in January, receiving a certificate of excellence for topping $1 million in sales or listings in what’s typically a slow month. Meanwhile, interest rates remain at a historic low (3.5 percent for a 30-year fixed mortgage at press time), and lenders are lightening up a bit.
“For the past few years, qualified buyers have had a difficult time obtaining a mortgage,” says Embrey. “That made it difficult to sell. It’s getting better, but I think there needs to be even more loosening in the industry.”
Local trends are equally promising for 2013. A Prudential Fox & Roach market report released at the end of January shows an 18.7-percent bump in home sales during the past 12 months. During that time, the average number of days a property sat on the market dropped from 94 days to 88.
“Home sales over the last year have steadily increased, pointing to an uptick in the market that we expect to continue in 2013,” says Steve Storti, senior vice president of marketing for Prudential Fox & Roach. “If 2012 was a transition year, 2013 will be even better—and we’ll see even more improvement.”
None of which surprises Storti. “There are a lot of potential buyers and sellers sitting on the sidelines who legitimately want to move,” he says. “Many of them are now entering the market.”
If you’re one of those looking to buy or sell a home right now, there are a few things you should know. First, be ready to make an offer if it’s something that meets your needs. “A lot of buyers aren’t realizing how fast homes are actually going off the market,” says Embrey. “They think realtors are creating the urgency, but it’s the reality of what’s happening out there right now.”
Since school districts remain a top concern for buyers in our area, homes in Lower Merion, Radnor and Tredyffrin/Easttown townships are the most likely to go quickly. And, in Fondren’s experience, today’s buyers are also looking for homes that are turnkey. “Many people don’t want to make improvements,” she says. “They don’t have the time or the energy.”
That said, if you have the vision to see the potential in a home—and the budget to tailor it to your lifestyle—you should be able to get a deal on something that’s been overlooked. And you may even avoid the numbers game.
“It’s absolutely key for the home to be priced well,” says Fondren. “The days of ‘let’s see what happens,’ with a wishful-thinking number, are over. It doesn’t make sense. Most home buyers are willing to seize the opportunity if the house they want is priced realistically.”
Lastly, convenience to a proper downtown area is an amenity that has staying power on the Main Line. “I’m seeing a lot of young couples with children moving to the Main Line from the city, and they want to be able to walk to amenities,” says Fondren. “Ardmore is an unbelievably hot area right now, because you can walk to the shops along Lancaster Avenue and in Suburban Square. Buyers don’t want to be buried in the suburbs anymore, especially if they’re coming from the city.”
Wayne has been a desirable locale for years, thanks to its thriving town center, with its movie theater, restaurants and boutiques. Malvern is headed in that direction, courtesy of a long-awaited commercial-residential project schedule for completion on King Street next year.
The surging walkability trend has led to new townhome and condominium developments in West Chester, Wayne, Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Ardmore, among other areas. An impressive example is Whitehall, 28-townhome development in Bryn Mawr priced in the $650,000-$750,000 range. It quickly sold out upon completion in 2011.
Only two units are left in the recently completed Haverford Court. Built by Media’s Cornell Homes, its 13 carriage homes are priced from the $590,000s. All are within walking distance to Haverford Square. Cornell is also the one behind the Waterford Walk townhome community in Ardmore, which started selling last fall.
Buyers looking for new construction will have plenty to choose from at Toll Brothers’ new Liseter community on the former DuPont estate in Newtown Square. The expansive, 449-unit development will offer a mix of single-family and carriage homes. “It’s hard to come by single lots anywhere on the Main Line,” Fondren says. “It’s also difficult to find anything affordable enough to tear down so you can build what you want.”
Now that spring is here, there’s also plenty of existing homes on the market. “This year definitely started out strong for sales,” says Fondren. “There’s no reason to believe it won’t keep getting better.”
And she’s off to show another listing.