LAND, THERE’S NOT A LOT OF IT IN GREENWICH

There is not much land in Greenwich, which is interesting given that Greenwich is the second largest town in Fairfield County after Newtown. Curiously, it’s hard to put an exact number on just how much land we have. Lots of websites use 47.83 square miles as the area of Greenwich, but a town annual report says 50.6 square miles, while Wikipedia says 67.2 miles, but this includes the water. Luckily, the Realtors in town don’t sell much water, though for many years, the lowest priced listing in Greenwich was for a boat slip on the Mianus River.

                Less than 1% is available for sale as land

If we take the 47.83 square miles number and multiple it by 640 acres per square mile, we come up with 30,611 acres which is quite a bit of land. So where are we short of land? The land that there is not a lot of in Greenwich, is land listed for sale.  As of this week we only have 69 land listings in Greenwich compared with 484 listings for single family homes. The land listings total 243 acres, while the residential listings total 938 acres. Only 0.79% of the land in Greenwich is available for sale as land.

You can buy a land listing in every part of town as our land listings are very evenly spread throughout town from Banksville to Byram and Backcountry to Belle Haven. Of the 69 land listings that we presently have 19 are in backcountry, 18 are in mid-country and 20 are in the southeast part of Greenwich; Cos Cob, Riverside and Old Greenwich. As you might expect with either raw land or a teardown, the average price for a land listing is lower, $2.22 million versus a single family home listing, $4.11 million.

Greenwich Land Listings as of 2/18/20

Never developed land in Greenwich is a particularly rare commodity. In the last 380 years since Greenwich’s founding, just about every lot worth building on has been built on. We get most of our raw land listings from subdivisions of oversized lots where the house is on one lot and the formerly empty extra acreage becomes another lot.

Fire, unfortunately, is also another source of “raw” land as it doesn’t take much of a fire to condemn a whole house. The smoke damage, and the water damage from putting out the fire, often mean that the total cost to clean up the house, eliminate the smoke smell from carpets, walls and ceilings as well as to reconstruct the actual fire and water damaged areas can quickly exceed the costs of building a new house. I have this exact situation in backcountry Greenwich where we will be putting on a very developable 8.7 acres for $1.49 million.

Land sales appear artificially low

So how does land sell compared to houses? If you look at the raw numbers, the answer would be not well. Last year we only had 15 sales of land that totaled 77 acres or 5.1 acres on average. On the single family home sales side, we had 527 sales that totaled 734 acres or 1.39 acres per sale. Land listings are larger and don’t seem to sell as well. The larger factor is due to many oversized lots being listed for sale as land.

The poorer sales are actually an artifact of the way that sales are reported on the Greenwich MLS. As mentioned, most land listings actually have a house on the land and are usually also listed as a residential listing. When the property sales, the agent has to change the status on one listing to “sold” and the other listing to “cancelled”. Most agents pick the residential listing to be the sold listing and cancel the land listing. The result is that sales of listings for land are significantly under-reported.

Tips on working with developers on land sales

I’m part of the New Development Group at Berkshire Hathaway and we deal with a lot of builders and developers. To their credit, none of the builders that I know of, want to be known for building cheap houses. Cheap construction doesn’t sell in Greenwich. (An out of town builder tried to do that in Pemberwick using lots of plastic; on the front porch, on the siding and in the windows. It was a tough sale, that hung around for a long time.)

Builders are interested in getting the land for as cheap as possible as every dollar they save is an extra dollar of profit. Agents who work with developers know what they are looking for and will often contact owners of developable land directly, often by letter, to see if they might want to sell. (Owners should be a little cautious as a few agents have been known to exaggerate just how active the buyer is to get a listing.) A developer/buyer needs a low price if they are to make a profit. I know one prominent local developer who strongly believes that prices of land need to come down more for there to be significant new development to meet our demand for new housing.

When we represent developers, we have several non-monetary incentives that can make a developer’s lower price more appealing. For example, the closing date can be flexible. Some buyers want a quick close and no mortgage contingency and our more well-financed sellers can do that. On the other hand, I just had a seller in Riverside who was older and was downsizing. She needed a longer closing time to arrange for her children to take the furniture they want, arrange a tag sale and sign a contract with the place where she wanted to move. Another cost saving and hassle saving in a private sell to a developer is that the homeowner doesn’t have to stage the house and keep it constantly in pristine shape ready for a showing.

I also often ask that the seller be allowed to leave whatever they want in the house that is being torn down. This not only saves the seller money, but it is also a major time saver and stress reliever. A lower price from a developer does not necessarily mean a lower value to the seller.

Custom building your own home

Land listings are unique and need to be looked at carefully. If you plan on building a custom house in a new development, it really helps to know what the neighbors are going to build. I have a land listing with Carline Martin in a new development off of Sherwood Avenue and the fact that we have two large, beautiful, newly built houses on each side certainly makes the property more valuable as the buyer can see what the neighborhood will look like.

If you want to build a house, it helps to have an agent and an architect who is familiar with the requirements at planning and zoning, wetlands, floor area ratios and setbacks, green areas, wells or town water, and septic or sewers. When you are building your dream house, you have lots of options, but also lots of rules to follow, but in the end you have just the way you want.

 

Is It Time to Rent, Renovate or Relocate

This being Valentine’s Day week, I was thinking of things that people love and figure that most people love their homes. The memories made there are often some of the best of their lives; family holidays, baby’s first steps, some great parties, just sitting down to dinner with family night after night makes for a wonderful bond with your home. But what do you do when the house is too small, or too large, or just too expensive?

                When is the Best Time to Sell Your House?

If you are thinking about a move more than a year out, you have some time to do some planning to maximize the return on your house. Right now, we are at the beginning of the spring market and as well as love, many people’s hearts turn to relocation in the Spring. So, is the spring market always, the best time to put your house on the market? For many people the answer is yes as that is when we see the largest number of deals made, but that’s not always the case.

We do have a good, albeit smaller, fall market that starts right after Labor Day. However, what you want to ideally do is put your house on the market when demand is greater than supply and that can happen at anytime of the year, that’s just a matter of having your Realtor look at the numbers. If your house is one of the few that is coming on the market and dealings being done are above average, even December can be a good time to put your house on the market.

Planning Ahead

Thinking in advance also gives you time to fix up the house, declutter the inside and stage it, either with mostly your own stuff or with furniture that the stager brings in. Painting the exterior and interior can really help a house look more presentable and well cared for. While most houses sell better when they have furniture in them, houses that are very cluttered or whose interior doesn’t match today’s buyer for that house may sell better when lightly staged or even empty. Another nice feature of moving first and selling second is that you don’t have to keep your home ready to be shown at a moment’s notice.

Should You Renovate Your House?

In general, you don’t want to do major renovations to make the house more saleable. I one time had a prospective seller proudly show me before and after pictures of a just renovated upstairs guest bathroom as a key selling point. The problem was the kitchen and the other bathrooms were badly dated, so the money might have been better spent on redoing the floors and brightening what was a dark house.

If you are planning on staying in your house for several more years, but are considering doing renovations, consider how they will add to the value of the house and to its future salability. Taking a traditional floorplan and opening it up and putting in the new kitchen that you have always wanted, makes you happy and also makes the house easier to sell. The one caveat is not to go to far in customization. I had a client who had customized bathroom tiles made in Italy for the boys’ bathroom. They had frogs, snakes and undersea creatures in full relief; cute, but they creeped out some people.

Can You Afford to Sell Your House?

In the pre-recession days, people nearly always sold their house for a nice gain and had plenty of money to go around to pay costs and have a nice downpayment for their next place. In today’s world, and particularly for those people that bought at the height of the market in 2004 – 2008 that may not be the case. For sellers, you need to be able to payoff the mortgage, pay your attorney and broker and pay two taxes that many sellers don’t think about.

CT Conveyance Taxes

Connecticut imposes a conveyance tax on sellers of homes. The tax is 0.75% under $800,000 and 1.25% over that amount plus a 0.25% town tax or a total of 1% below $800K and 1.5% over $800K. On our median $1.8 million dollar sale that comes to $23,000. Starting in July of this year the state will impose an additional 2.25% tax on the sale amount over $2.5 million. If you stay in the state after you sell your house, you will get back the additional tax starting in 2023. What we will clearly see this year is bump up on in June sales and a drop in July sales just as we saw in 2011, when the state conveyance tax was increased by 0.25%.

U.S. Capital Gains Taxes

The other tax that most people don’t pay on the sale of their home is the federal capital gains tax. This is because of the $250,000 tax exemption for each person and $500,000 for a couple. For anyone who bought in the Greenwich in the 1980s or before they almost certainly have this much gain even for our lowest priced houses. For our higher priced houses sellers may find that that in addition to the 20% capital gains tax they are also paying the additional 3.8% Obamacare surcharge. Now as my mom used to tell my dad, not everything is about taxes and even in worse case situation you still keep over 75% of the gain above the $500,000 exemption.

One thing that sometimes surprises people is that you don’t get to deduct the mortgage payoff in calculation your gain. So if you bought a house a long time ago for $100,000 and you sell it this year for $1,100,000 and you refinanced several times up to say an $800,000 mortgage, you still have to pay taxes on a $1,000,000 gain even though you are only netting $300,000 after the mortgage is paid off.

If however you used the money from the refinancings to do $500,000 of improvements over the years, you would owe no capital gains taxes. This is because your basis is $600,000; your $100,000 purchase price plus your $500,000 of capital improvements. Just make sure you have your invoices for capital improvements in case the IRS wants to see them.

Delaying Capital Gains Taxes

One additional option that you know have to delay paying the capital gains on your house is to take the taxable portion of the proceeds and reinvest them in an opportunity zone fund. We really should have a one time unlimited exemption for the gain on sale of your primary residence when you retire. For many people, their house was their primary way of savings for their retirement.

How to Make Money While Downsizing

Now if you are downsizing many people think of their new home as the last home that they will ever own. This has led to tennis buddies of mine in their 70s who are highly mobile on the tennis court insisting that they only want me to show them downsized houses with a first floor master, because eventually they aren’t going to be able to do stairs. The $500,000 capital gains tax exemption does lead to a good opportunity for retirement planning. Simply, buy a house that needs work, fix it up and live in it for a couple of years, or more, and get up to $500,000 of capital gains tax free, then you can retire to Edgehill or Florida with a better nest egg.

Should I Rent or Sell My House?

The biggest owners of multi-family duplexes and triplexes in Greenwich are Greenwich residents. Lots of doctors, lawyers and financial people like having a steady source of income and income-producing real estate in their portfolios. What about renting your home? It can be a good source income and you can shelter some of the income with tax depreciation.

On the flip side, you have all the responsibilities of a landlord. You will also lose the personal residence $500,000 exemption after three years since you won’t have lived in the house for 2 of the last 5 years.

Can I deduct a Long Term Capital Loss if I Convert to a Rental Property?

One thing that you might think works, but doesn’t, is converting your house to a rental in order to take a long term capital loss on the house. Normally, losses on your personal residence are not deductible as they are treated as a personal losses. If you convert it to a rental property, your basis in the rental property becomes the fair market value on the date it became a rental. If the value were to continue to drop after that date you could take that loss, however, you must first recapture any excess depreciation, which may reduce your tax loss.

As a rental, your house can be a reliable source of income for years, but don’t forget that depreciation is not just a tax concept. When it come times to sell or re-rent a rental property, you will have some fix-up costs if you want to get the best value.

 

When deciding between renting, selling or renovating, I always tell my clients to decide what is going to make you the happiest. What’s the use of having more money, if it makes you more unhappy, because you are stuck in the wrong house or the wrong state. If a new house will make you happier and you have the funds, why wait for years to do something that will make your life better now?

 

January 2020 Greenwich Real Estate Market Report – What a Difference a Decade Makes

When we last left you at the end of the decade in December 2019, sales were down 11% for the year and were down 26% in the month of December. But all was not lost our contracts at year-end were up 41%, which boded well for the beginning of the new decade.

As of 2/2/2019 Inventory Contracts Last Mo. Solds Last Mo Solds+ Contracts  YTD Solds  YTD+ Contracts Mos Supply Mos w/ Contracts Last Mo. Annlzd
< $600K 5 3 1 4 1 4 5.0 3.1 5.0
$600-$800K 20 4 1 5 1 5 20.0 10.0 20.0
$800K-$1M 23 2 2 4 2 4 11.5 14.4 11.5
$1-$1.5M 52 17 10 27 10 27 5.2 4.8 5.2
$1.5-$2M 53 8 8 16 8 16 6.6 8.3 6.6
$2-$3M 97 12 6 18 6 18 16.2 13.5 16.2
$3-$4M 68 9 5 14 5 14 13.6 12.1 13.6
$4-$5M 39 3 3 6 3 6 13.0 16.3 13.0
$5-6.5M 33 1 2 3 2 3 16.5 27.5 16.5
$6.5-$10M 38 0 0 0 0 0 x x x
> $10M 25 1 0 1 0 1 x 62.5 x
 
TOTAL 453 60 38 98 38 98 11.9 11.6 11.9

The increased contracts from December did not disappoint us resulting in 38 single family home sales in January 2020 sales an increase of 41% from January 2019’s 29 sales. These 38 sales also beat our 10 average of 32 sales. You expect to see increased sales in a month that begins with increased contracts, but January had more good news for sellers.

Jan2020.2018-2020.020420

You would think with all those contracts maturing into sales, that contracts would have fallen by the end of January, and they did a little, but the buyers were out there signing more contracts and buoying the market. We entered January with 72 contracts and left the month with 60 contracts. This is normal behavior for the beginning of year as many people wait until the new year to close deals. (We also have people who rush to close before year-end, an effect that we did not see in December 2019. If someone could explain why we didn’t see our normal number of year-end deals in 2019, I’d be appreciative.)

What we did see by the end of January 2020 was the 38 contracts going to sold status, but we also 18 more contracts than we saw at the end of January 2019. So, more sales and more contracts at the same time means buyers and sellers were busy in January signing new contracts. Sales and contracts were up 27 in total in January. This increase in both sales and contracts resulted in our inventory dropping to 453 listings down 31 houses from January 2019 when we had 484 listings.

Jan2020vs2019.Spreadsheet.mp.020420

One exception to the lower inventory was a continued increase in inventory from $600K to $1.5 million. In earlier times, that is before 2018, we had buyers snapping up these homes as getting into Greenwich for under $1.5 million was very desirable and we had a “normal” number of people retiring and moving south or into a condo. In 2019 and extending into January 2020, ore folks in this price range are retiring and heading south or moving into a condo or even returning to NYC as empty nesters.

In 2018, this increase in retiree driven inventory was more than counterbalanced by a surge in sales from Westchesterites fleeing the highest property taxes in the country. Our sales from $800,000 to $1 million were up 59% in 2018 to 73 sales. That increase wasn’t sustainable and in 2019 our sales were back down to 47 sales almost identical to our 46 sales in that price range in 2017. At the same time, we had more “retirees as we saw in 2018. The result was more inventory and normal level of sales.

Jan2020.Sales.Inv.Cur.Ks.020420

Above $1.5 million, our inventory was down or flat in every price range with 56 fewer higher-end listings or a drop of 14%. This brings months of supply down in the higher end. We are about to see months of supply go up as now that the Super Bowl has come and gone (sorry about that S.F.) the spring market has begun. The increase in months of supply will be muted from $1 million to $4 million as 46 of our 60 contracts or 77% are between $1 and $4 million.

Jan20.4Pie.020420

With the exception of the aforesaid inventory from $600,000 to $1.5 million just about every indicator is showing a market that moved towards the sellers in January. Overall inventory is down, 6%, January sales were up 31% and contracts were up 43%; a very nice start to the year. With less inventory and more sales and contract, overall months of supply was also down.

What to do in our 2020 spring market

Every broker is different, but I advise my sellers to go where the action is. Right now, the action is in the $1 – 4 million dollar price range. We are seeing lower inventory, good sales and good contracts (actually only contracts matter when taking the pulse of the market at any given time). If the market is demand is there, I like to list earlier rather than waiting. You want to be in the market when the buyers are active, and you have fewer competing sellers. Of course, this also varies by neighborhood the house is in and other factors, so it is part art and part math/science. I put 21 Tomney Road on the market last week at $2.779,000. It is a beautiful house in immaculate, move-in condition and inventory is down and contracts are up.  We had 71 agents show up for a realtors’ open house, double the average number for a first open house. It can be nice to be early when things are busy.

What if your price range/neighborhood is not a hot spot? Then, I advise my clients to wait until later in the spring market to go public. If the buyers are not there, you may only be accumulating days on market. In a month or two other newer listings are going to be coming on when the house that rushed to market already has 30 or 60 of days on the market.

Buyers can also use this information. Knowing the same supply and demand information let’s buyers make better deals. Right now, 70% of our single-family home listings have been on the market for more than 4 months and 43% have been on for more than 9 months. Some of these sellers just aren’t motivated as represented by the 30 listing that have been on for more than two years. But, many of these sellers are looking for an offer. If you like the house make an offer, it doesn’t cost anything to make an offer in Greenwich unlike some other towns. Early in the year is an especially good time to make an all cash-offer, with either a quick close in the house is empty or a delayed close if the sellers have to arrange a move. Just match the offer to the seller’s desires.

January is only a blip on the market, but it was good blip. February is also looking good so far. Several blips in a row make a trend.

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