How to Compete in The Greenwich Real Estate Market in 2024

above: Photograph by Realty Plans/realtor Pam Pagnani

Anyone who’s had Covid will not be immune from complaining about the flu’s hangover effect. Will things ever get normal again? It’s much the same when you discuss the Greenwich real estate scene. We’re feeling all right now, but man, what just happened? And what’s ahead?

Even the obligatory task of “doing the numbers” now requires some new considerations and mental gymnastics. But however the numbers rise and tumble, it all leads inescapably to the main market reality: The inventory shelf needs replenishing.

“Sales were down last year,” notes David Haffenreffer of Houlihan Lawrence, “because there’s nothing to sell.” What happened? The oft-told tale about the market is that homeowners paying off a mortgage written in the 3-percent times just don’t want to downsize to a new property mortgaged in these 7-percent times. Hence the high hopes among Realtors that more of the promised rate cuts will arrive and stimulate the market. When folks see the neighborhood houses selling, they want in.

Also, Greenwich is in a sense now dealing with its new popularity among the city migrants. “When Covid hit in 2020,” reports Jeff Jackson at Corcoran, “we had a thousand home sales. Then the next year, we had another thousand. Then last year we had 400. Thus, we started out 2024 with 98 homes for sale, when we usually have 450.”

The result? Some very successful, competitive shoppers have had to work on their strategies. We consulted some of the local Realty authorities to get the latest inside dope.

The starting point for any such discussion is that speed still matters. “Before Covid the average time on the market was 300 days,” says Kevin Sneddon of Compass. “Then it became thirty. Or three.”

You need, in brief, a very active action plan.

A shingle style colonial sits on beautifuly landscaped grounds on Langhorn Lane. – Photograph: Modern Angles

THE NUMBERS GAME

When you look at the numbers in Greenwich, always take a second look.

Unit sales, for instance, might have dropped 17 percent in 2023, says Eric Bjork of Berkshire Hathaway, “but dollar amounts only dipped 4 percent.”

“I think it was the year of the luxury buyer,” says Pam Pagnani of Sotheby’s. “Prices have gone up.”

Indeed. Last year’s average sales price of $3.54 million was a whopping half-million higher than 2022.

Of course, in Greenwich the “average” price can get skewed by trifles such as a $138 million sale here and a $30 million deal there.

In the heady region above $10 million, there were 15 sales, Pam reports, a 50 percent rise over the year before. “There is still an appetite, and people are there who can buy these houses.”

For houses over $3 million, it is now common to see the transaction as a cash deal.

David Wilk of William Raveis reports: “There is still a plentiful pool of buyers, with a lot of them being cash buyers. We knew there was a lot of cash out there, but ever since Covid, we didn’t know how much cash.”

It might be getting clear that the notion of the Greenwich “starter home” has changed radically. Eric Bjork: “I’m sure Gen Xers and millennials would love to buy and get out of that cape.”

Stunning interiors are a hallmark of this Old Round Hill Lane home. – Photograph: Evan Joseph/Realtor Kevin Sneedon

Well, good luck. “Pre-Covid,” notes Kevin Sneddon, “people would see something priced at $3 million and say, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty nice house.’ Now it’s five or six million.”

The most intriguing market change occurred north of the Merritt Parkway in Backcountry, where the landed gentry cast their eyes over large estates. Not so many years ago, notes Pam Pagnani, a house in that rarefied precinct might languish on the market for a thousand days.

“Pre-Covid,” adds Sneddon, “nobody shopped there. Then in the early days of Covid, people were glad to find values there. Now people are willing to pay legitimate prices to live there and have a family compound.”

The rise of the family-compound arrangement is part of a larger movement. The Boomers are downsizing. With its first cohort now deep in its seventies, many are overseeing the transfer of wealth to the next generation.

“I’ve been dealing with the family trusts,” says Kevin Sneddon. “These people want stability in their lives. And wealthy people really understand the long-term value of luxury real estate. It’s not about price; it’s about the security of a long-term investment.”

Accordingly, the brokers themselves get the once-over. “You get interviewed,” he notes. “They put you through the paces to make sure the family is making a smart purchase.”

For those who might be worried about some sort of new housing bubble, Jeff Jackson advises a second look: “As much as we feel that this market has risen dramatically since Covid, the fact is that many sections are still below peak and there is still room to rise. In everything north of town, pricing is still below 2007.”

STYLE & WHAT’S SELLING

Those big sales mentioned earlier? The $138 million sale, which set a record as Connecticut’s highest ever, was Copper Beach Farm, a 50-acre beachfront (in Belle Haven) owned by a company associated with Ray Dalio, the founder of the Bridgewater hedge fund. Lesley McElwereath and Joseph Barbieri of Sotheby’s International put it on the market, and Douglas Elliman brought in the still-unnamed buyer.

“In Greenwich, a lot of properties are old and in need of a gut job,” says Broker Jen Danzi. But sometimes sellers just don’t want to do the work, and most of today’s buyers, of course, are definitely not looking for fixer-uppers, despite the popularity of those TV shows. “People just want to move in.”

So the contractors are hopping. It should be remembered that in some sense we’re still dealing with the financial traumas of 2008, which drove a number of builders out of business. Many of the survivors now understandably choose to work the luxury side of the street.

An open kitchen and family room layout is the center point of this 9,000-sqaure-foot home on Lake Avenue. – Photograph: Realty Plans/Realtor Meg Mcquillan

“Most new construction is limited to the high end,” says David Haffenreffer. “The land has gotten so valuable that builders are looking to build $6 million-plus homes.”

Even if a seller is prepping a more modest house, it still has to look a little fantastic. Someone who has occupied a house since the Ford Administration has to recognize that today’s Greenwich house has gotten more complicated. What used to be an extravagance is now just normal stuff.

“The new mandatory amenities,” Shelly Tretter Lynch of Compass says, laughing, “now include high-speed internet, high-tech security systems, home offices, home gyms that include infrared saunas, meditation rooms and kitchens equipped with extra-large sinks.”

Jenny Allen, also of Compass, has heard the customers’ wish lists. To accommodate these burgeoning demands, it’s best for contractors to have the vision to work with designers. “Everybody wants high ceilings. Since Covid, people went whole-lifestyle in their homes, with everything at their fingertips. You need an escape room downstairs. Everybody wants a gym. The bedroom on the first floor is one of the biggest demands. People who are downsizing demand that. And they’d like to see elevators, too.”

This Widgeon Way home offers in-town luxury-living. – Photograph: Kyle Norton/Reatlor Hilary Phillips

The key word here is “rooms”—i.e., we might not need the old big-as-a-gymnasium family room. “The entire house does not need to be completely open,” says Shelly. “The size of the house is not as important as the ease of living within the house. Communal areas are still very important but so is privacy.”

As far as aesthetics run, this remains the capital of the center-hall-colonial. Younger residents like to experiment more with contemporary rooflines and designs. When Kevin Sneddon counsels people on the very large properties, he believes that classic lines hold their value better.

The exteriors might be a lot of classic white with black shutters, but in interior design, Shelly Tretter Lynch sees that more people are “playing with color. Wallpaper was passé years ago, but now, oh, how the spectacular new patterns of wallpaper are creating an artiste-in-residence feel.”

THE BIDDING GAME

Given the new reality that almost all home sellers are at least getting their asking price —at minimum—the natural tendency for sellers is to imagine some, you know, sky-high asking price. Sorta like Copper Beach Farm going on the market at $150 million.

Like most Realtors, Eric Bjork advises caution. “The reality is that not everything flies off the shelf.” The real profits come from bidding wars, which are now the new reality. “You can’t underprice,” he adds. “Buyers are so informed these days. We have a lot of customers who look at screens all day, analyzing numbers.”

“If the seller prices the home properly,” says David Haffenreffer, “they can get a stampede.”

Given the new competitiveness, mortgage contingencies are now simply off the table.

“People are still doing inspections,” says Jen Danzi, “but they’re being done for information purposes. The buyers are not coming back and demanding $500 off for a new washer.”

These super-savvy customers are not above going to Town Hall and ferreting out records on a house, says Jen. “Some of the information can be accessed online, but for a lot of it, you have to go to Town Hall and dig up the records. Knowledge is always key.”

The consumer armed with knowledge probably has sharpened competitive instincts. Let’s make a deal, they think. Then they find themselves up against a similarly competitive bunch of rivals.

A Cos Cob home that went for 36 percent over asking price. – Photograph: Realty Plans/Broker Jen Danzi

“They don’t like to lose,” says Jeff Jackson. “How do I counsel them? With serious macro-economic information. Because you can win. We did one sale in four days. That was from going on the market to signing the contract.”

“Some people are stubborn and don’t want to put in higher offers,” says Jen. “When people get so tired of looking and looking, they say, ‘I can’t take anymore’ and then put in an offer at the full price. And that doesn’t go anywhere. But finally, they decide they can’t keep doing this anymore and begin bidding up.”

The competition strikes at all levels. Jen saw the market energy in action recently when she helped put a modest three-bedroom in Cos Cob, built in 1928, on the market for $995,000. “We start showing on Friday and got so much traffic over the weekend that on Monday we announced we were going with the highest and best. It got $1.361 million, or 36 percent over.”

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

It’s not just the present mortgage rate that keeps some people from selling. Bjork has also been hearing that some boomers are just staying in their homes. “They like the space, having the house paid off, just paying taxes and watching the grandkids.”

So what does a home shopper do with such scant inventory?

“Some people camp for a year in a rental in hopes of getting a house later,” says Haffenreffer, “It’s a good time to be a landlord.”

Bjork: “Greenwich is the only town I know where you downsize to a $4 million condo.”

Downtown (referred to as “walking distance”) became newly popular several years ago and would be even more popular now if developers could get past the restrictions. Case in point is a new three-story building at the corner of Milbank and Havemeyer. It required the blasting of a few old lots and some serious sweatwork in the zoning department, but now, according to Bjork, it is offering thirty 1,400-square-foot, two-bedroom units priced between $8,000 to 12,000 a month. Gym included.

“People just need to be ready,” says David Wilk.

“It’s important for the buyer to do their homework and know their budget and have their team in place,” says Perry Gaa, lending manager at Citibank. “By team, I mean working with a Realtor, attorney and a mortgage loan officer.

“I recommend customers to start the home-buying process by obtaining a preapproval so they make an informed decision based upon sounds facts, including how much they can afford, what documents will be required and what to expect every step of the way. The pre-approval acts as a business plan for buying the home, and it can provide consumers a competitive advantage when bidding on a home vs. other potential buyers.”

Photograph by Julie Bidwell

THE ROAD HOME

You must have heard the one about a Westchester friend who got tired of his $30,000 property tax bill and moved to Florida where he was happy to see a $1,300 tax. But wait a minute, what’s this $30,000 bill for insurance?

Those miffed taxpayers keep moving to Greenwich, where they hear familiar accents coming from all the Manhattan and Brooklyn friends who have also planted stakes here.

David Haffenreffer has been gathering anecdotal optimism on the spring market.

“If we can get some meaningful pullback on the mortgage rates, it would give sellers the confidence that, yes, things are moving, it’s time to enter the market.”

Some brokers expressed worry that anything worrisome in the current presidential race might make customers feel cautious and move to the sidelines. But countering that is the general heat felt by customers who feel this is the safest place to invest.

“Whatever havoc there might be in the economy in general,” says Eric Bjork, “Greenwich is immune.”

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