Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Getting Real about Vermont Real Estate

We began the Great Real Estate Adventure-Dilemma (GREAD) back in February.

For me, our new home would be the sixth place I've occupied in the past seven years. African herdsman move less often than I do.

Like all naïvely optimistic would-be homeowners, we were sure that we would find several great places to choose from.

The three of us, eighth-grader included, were doing everything right. We’d done our Internet research and made our list of “must-have” and “no-way-Jose” features. We had a real-estate agent who was both a friend and a highly capable professional.

We were starting out early in the buying season. Surely we would get first look at all the hot new properties.

Or so we thought. Turns out that most of the properties on the market were neither hot nor new. Some of them had been sitting out there for more than a year, growing more frigid by the day.

OK, then. Primed by historically low interest rates and an allegedly depressed housing market, we figured there were bargains to be had.

Then we looked a little harder, and gulped.

If there were real estate bargains close to Middlebury, they were well hidden. Or just perfect for people less picky than we were.

Most of the new and ready-to-be-built homes seemed to be at 2006 prices: As if there had been no Great Recession, no collapse in prices, no disaster that turned collateralized debt obligations into horse manure.

As for older homes on the market, their sellers also appeared to believe we were still living in Boom City. Everyone was waiting for that rich New Yorker to show up with an open checkbook.

Prices were so unrealistically high that I came to think people didn't really want to sell their homes. They just wanted to list them.

I guess everyone thinks her home is the special one, the one gem that will generate demand from multiple buyers.

Probably these people also think they will win the Vermont lottery and immediately retire.

It's anybody's guess what things are actually worth these days. Listing prices are so high as to seem concocted over cocktails, so ridiculously out of whack as to invite hilariously lowball offers.

As in any real estate market, certain Addison County towns are perceived to have more cachet than others. Would-be sellers in Cornwall, for example, seem to feel their address automatically adds $150,000 to the price of the place.

We are all, in the words of the Paul Simon song, mistaking value for the price.

Our real estate search became an obsession. This winter when we weren’t sleeping, working or snowboarding, we were tracking new listings on line, talking to our Realtor, and out looking at houses.

Old houses. New houses. Model homes. 19th-century farmhouses. Places you could drive a truck through -- located on a highway where it sounded like someone actually was driving a truck through them at that very moment.

Planned residential developments. Haphazardly located country homes. Single-story ranch houses with sunken living rooms. Ultra-modern, architect-designed mini-palaces. Everything but mobile homes and hotels.

We became experts on local real estate websites. I can readily tell you who has the best blog; the finest photos; and the most profusely misleading property descriptions.

Comparing the online photos to the actual house interiors reminded me of what happens on web dating services. The hard-body gym rat turns out to be 50 pounds overweight. The charming, well lit dining room is in fact darker than Plato's cave.

But it wouldn't be fair to put all the blame on unrealistic sellers. We were certainly unrealistic buyers, too.

We dreamed of finding the underpriced place that with TLC and an extra $100,000 could become a showplace. But all those houses have already been turned into showplaces.

We were sure there was raw land with Adirondack views but without huge costs for septic, road, well, and utilities. We were going to be, alone among all would-be buyers in Vermont, the only ones to figure out how to build a Yankee Magazine prizewinner for $120 a square foot.

And then there were our contrasting tastes. I thought a nicely styled ranch house would be perfect for aging in place. She, on the other hand, dreamed of the real estate equivalent of the neutron bomb -- one that would spare the occupants but destroy all ranch houses now in existence.

I wanted to live 60 seconds from the co-op. She seemed ready to move to Port Henry for the right house.

So what did we learn about the state of the local real estate market?

Even though demand for new homes is way down, builders are (unrealistically, in my view) still quoting $200 a square foot for new construction. That means a 1,500-square-foot house costs $300,000 to build. Typical costs for getting a driveway, utilities and water to the site add another $100,000-plus – meaning even a glorified ranch house is going to run at least $400,000 and likely more.

While it’s possible to get an older house for less, buyers who can afford to be a bit discriminating will typically need to pay $350,000 and up if they want to live anywhere near Middlebury, in something that’s not tiny or a tract home.

After three months of looking, we decided that despite our real estate agent's admirable efforts, the right place wasn't out there -- at least not in a price we could afford without signing away the eighth-grader into a lifetime of indentured servitude.

We'll be moving into our new rental house in early June.

- 30 -

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