House Rules

Slow and steady residential growth, augmented by cautious optimism and careful planning, continued to guide the Stamford real estate landscape during 2017. Just look at the numbers: Single-family home prices climbed at a steady, if unspectacular, 2 percent, while the number of sales also grew slightly. “It’s a stable market,” says Tammy Felenstein, executive director of Stamford sales for Halstead Property, who is joined in the report that follows by real estate pros who shared their insight into what is driving the local market and where they see it going in 2018.

“We’re a big city and we have so many different neighborhoods,” explains Felenstein, echoing other industry executives who believe a slow growth model is more favorable to Stamford, which is insulated from wild fluctuations due to its variety of housing options. “We have price points that other towns don’t have. We’re very well-rounded.”

Contributing to the market’s rise is the continued development of apartment buildings near the train station, with more rental high-rises expected to open in 2018. Increasingly, experts say, New York City commuters are renting in Stamford—and forsaking higher-cost units in the Big Apple—to enjoy the amenities and lifestyle that come with living in an urban complex. “Stamford has done a great job of reinventing itself,” says Ted Ferrarone, COO of Harbor Point, which has built more than 1,400 apartments in the area the past few years.

With more businesses setting up shop in Stamford, the city seems poised for another solid year in real estate transactions. Recent federal tax legislation and an expected rise in interest rates could cause potential buyers to pump the brakes but most experts believe real estate in Stamford will continue to be highly sought after for renters and buyers alike. Find out what else you should expect as the spring market begins to heat up.


1 THINGS ARE LOOKING UP

Real estate experts who do business in Stamford steadfastly believe the city could provide the economic stimulus the financially bedraggled state desperately needs. “Stamford is the key to Connecticut’s financial success and prosperity,” says Rick Higgins, chairman and founder of Higgins Group, which opened a new office in Stamford last summer. “Stamford is just prime. It has everything you could possibly want.”

Higgins and others point to several factors—Stamford’s proximity to New York City, its transportation infrastructure, housing variety and office space availability—as key incentives for businesses that are considering a move, concluding, then, that Stamford could spur the state’s financial renaissance. “I think Stamford could be Silicon Coast,’’ Higgins says. “I think Stamford might be the sixth borough of New York. These businesses have to go somewhere. I don’t think they want to go to Long Island.”

In 2017 several companies, including Henkel and Octagon, moved their headquarters to Stamford, signaling an encouraging trend that many feel could spur even more relocations to the city. Charter Communications, Kayak, Indeed and Vineyard Vines are among the businesses that have recently opened or expanded their headquarters to Stamford. Tudor Investments signed a lease in November to move to Stamford. One real estate source says, “seven or eight” businesses could announce moves to Stamford in 2018.

Stamford’s housing variety is one of the lures for businesses who are considering a move. “We have something for almost every level of buyer,’’ says Dave Campana, a real estate agent with Halstead Property. “Most of the other towns around us don’t have that variety. We have rental properties, condominiums and single-family homes in every price range. In [neighboring towns], starter homes are in the $800,000 to $900,000 range and you better be ready to work. You can get a lot of house for that in Stamford.”

Access to transportation adds to Stamford’s housing value. Many of the newer properties, especially rental units, are a short distance from the train station. Commuters who work in New York City can arrive at Grand Central Station via train in less than 45 minutes in some cases. Nearby Westchester Airport is also a draw.

Factor in the vibrant nightlife, restaurants and recreational activities, and it’s easy to see why realtors believe more people and businesses could settle in Stamford in the years to come. “I think it’s on the verge of booming,’’ Higgins says. “Honestly, I think it has already begun and we just don’t realize it. I know they’ll fill up the new apartments that they’re building. I can feel the excitement building.”

“We are a diamond that’s just now being recognized for its appeal and multifaceted attributes,’’ says Vikktoria Cooper, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker and president-elect of the Stamford Board of Realtors. “A lot of condos are getting scooped up by investors. They have faith. We are the magic pill, and if we all push along, we’ll do very well as a state.”


2 THE DREAM DOWNSIZE

Not all homeowners looking to downsize are moving to southern or western states. Many are finding appeal in Stamford, especially in neighborhoods where they can walk to stores and restaurants. “You’d think they’d be going to Florida,’’ says Vikktoria Cooper of Coldwell Banker and the Stamford Board of Realtors. “Some are coming back to the Northeast.”

Cooper says various reasons are influencing couples seeking to downsize after their children have moved out of the house. Some want to stay in the same geographic location as their families.

They also want smaller properties, reduced taxes and nearby amenities. They no longer want to drive twenty minutes to a grocery store, or spend weekends working on home projects. “Most likely they’re looking for something with a main floor bedroom,” Cooper says. “But they’ll retrofit a home to suit their needs. It’s a unique situation, something we haven’t seen in a while.”

By way of example, Cooper points to recent clients, specifically a family that moved from the Midwest to live with their daughter, who recently accepted a job in New York City. The family now lives in Stamford while the daughter commutes to the city every day for work.

“Nothing really surprises me anymore,’’ Cooper says. “It’s a welcome change. I see my colleagues are [experiencing] similar incidents. [Clients] want to be able to shoot down to the city. They like the accessible airport in Westchester County. It’s an existence full of relevance. If they moved elsewhere, they would not have that. In Florida, they won’t have the option of walking to the grocery store. It’s a mindset that says, ‘I don’t live my chronological age so why should I move in that direction?’”

Some downsizers are moving to Stamford from nearby Westchester County, too. Not only can they find smaller homes in Stamford, but they also find they pay far less in property taxes. “Many of them are not ready for community living,’’ says Barbara Hickey, a longtime agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s Realty. “They’re looking for a smaller, more manageable home, but they don’t want to give up the lifestyle. Stamford has all kinds of people passing through. We are thriving, and it’s a great, diverse community. Stamford represents the global world that we live in.”


3 RENTALS CONTINUE TO REIGN

Rental buildings have become the hot properties over the past five years, and the trend shows no signs of abating. In fact, the trend could even be escalating as more empty nesters and downsizers continue to find greater value in renting than in owning.

“The most significant trend in the Stamford real estate scene continues to be the unprecedented addition of multifamily rentals that cater to a wide socioˆeconomic and demographic spectrum,’’ says Tom Rich, president of F.D. Rich & Co., whose rental properties include Summer House at 184 Summer St., Bedford Hall at 545 Bedford St., and the much-anticipated Stamford Urby at Tresser Boulevard and Greyrock Place. “Since the last revaluation in 2012, over 5,300 rental units were constructed. This is unprecedented activity for any city in America but especially for one with a population of only 130,000. The rental housing demand is enhanced by how livable and well rounded the core areas of the city have become.”

Building & Land Technology has played a significant role in adding rental units in Harbor Point. (Next on the BLT portfolio will be the opening of NV@Harbor Point in 2018.) “We certainly see people coming from New York City to live in Stamford for the first time,’’ says Ted Ferrarone of Harbor Point. “They’re willing to commute to the city for work. The value proposition is so much better. They have a unit with a washer and dryer, parking, gym, and it’s twice as big as what they can rent in New York City. They’re paying 25 to 40 percent less, and the product is much better.”

The newer apartment complexes, with all their amenities, have had a dramatic impact on the rest of Stamford’s rental and residential landscape. “It’s amazing they are filling up as fast as they build them,” says Tammy Felenstein of Halstead Property. “Those complexes offer so many amenities that people won’t get from a lot of condos. They are communities in and of themselves.”

When BLT began developing Harbor Point, Ferrarone says the Stamford Master Plan called for “something on the order of 10,000 housing units.” But as the units have been built, more people have come to see their value. Ferrarone says BLT will continue to seek property, especially close to the train station, to build additional apartments. “Stamford is a vibrant city, and more people are discovering that all the time,” he says.

The apartments have had a positive ripple effect on Stamford’s finances, Rich says. “The economic spillover to both commercial and non-profit establishments is immense,” he says. “Income to the city amounts to at least $40,000 million annually, between property and other taxes when [considering] the entire multi-family rental housing sector including those projects built before 2012. This number doesn’t even include the massive front-end fees that are collected by the city before a shovel is placed in the ground. They’ve helped the city tremendously.”


4 IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PERKS

If there is one defining factor in the latest residential towers sprouting up and redefining the Stamford skyline, it’s the many amenities they all offer.

Start with the new Vela on the Park at 1011 Washington Blvd., opening this month facing Mill River Park; it is a short walk to the train station and in the heart of the city’s restaurant district. It includes 209 units—studios, one- and two-bedrooms, and luxury penthouses with square footage ranging from 594 for studios to 1,548. The project is being developed by Trinity Financial, with management overseen by Berkshire Communities of Boston. (Trinity developed another project at 66 Summer St. but sold the building last year.) “Stamford has really grown in popularity in recent years,” says Abby Goldenfarb, vice president at Trinity Financial. “You feel very comfortable in it. It’s a small town with these world-class amenities. It’s nice to be so close to New York City and Long Island Sound.”

Goldenfarb says the project’s proximity to the train station will be one of the primary attractions of the location, drawing commuters and downsizers alike.

Building perks are varied, and include reading nooks, a media center, a java station with communal tables, billiards, work pods, an arcade, a cardio and fitness center with a yoga room and built-in virtual programming capabilities, LEED certification for green living, a penthouse-level private dining room with a catering kitchen, and free Wi-Fi in all common areas. Tenants will also have access to a roof deck with outdoor bar, kitchen and lounges with fireside seating. “A lot of developers are realizing the importance of having communal spaces for tenants,” Goldenfarb says. “We are lucky in that this is the second or third building that has celebrated these spaces in a way they didn’t before.”

Not far down the road in Harbor Point is the recently opened NV@Harbor Point at 100 Commons Park N., a 100-plus acre redevelopment about a three-block walk from the train station that encompasses office, retail and residential spaces. The complex includes nearly 400 units—studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments—and an assortment of amenities. “There are a lot of people who are choosing to rent in Stamford,” says Ted Ferrarone of Harbor Point. “The advantage of Stamford is it’s a twenty-four-hour city. Having a real active waterfront is a great differentiator.”

This latest addition to Harbor Point’s portfolio features apartments with private balconies, a roof terrace with a heated pool and lounge area, a sun deck, a Matrix branded gym, a gaming room, grilling stations, bike storage with fix-it stations, gathering spaces with Wi-Fi, garage parking, a concierge desk, and more. “We intentionally designed the building to appeal to a tech-savvy, Millennial audience,” Ferrarone says, “but this is a building that will also cater to empty nesters. We’ve seen a real influx of older renters at The Beacon (another Harbor Point residential property). People are attracted to the maintenance-free lifestyle.”

Already towering over Tresser Boulevard is Atlantic Station, a two-tower, RXR and Cappelli Organization development that bills itself as “luxury living.” Featuring 650 units—studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments—complemented by 500,000 square feet of ground-floor space for retail, this location is steps from Stamford Town Center, and minutes from the train station and Mill River Park. Amenities include 24/7 concierge services, electric car-charging stations in a parking facility for 800 cars, dry-cleaning delivery service, and a sky terrace with an indoor/outdoor pool, a lounge, fire pits, a kitchen for entertaining, a game room and a gym with Peloton bikes and on-demand fitness programming.

Then there is the highly anticipated Stamford Urby, expected to open in 2019. To be located at Greyrock Place and Tresser Boulevard, the four-acre site will eventually include nearly 650 apartments spread between eleven buildings.

The development will occupy what has long been known as the “Hole in the Ground,” a parcel that has been vacant for nearly fifty years. (Current Urby properties can be found in Staten Island, New York; and Jersey City and Harrison, New Jersey.) “This is an important project for Stamford,” Mayor David Martin said at the groundbreaking in October. “My administration has worked hard to move this project along and we are happy that we are finally filling the infamous Hole in the Ground.”

Ironstate Development Co., which is developing the property in partnership with Brookfield Property Group, will complete the project in two phases. Ten of the eleven residential buildings will be connected along the perimeter, encircling a high-rise at the center of the complex.

The first construction phase of the Stamford Urby will consist of nine buildings, which together will house 464 rental apartments. Construction for the second phase is expected to begin late in 2019 and will include the remaining 184 homes and two buildings.

“Stamford and this location in particular have everything we look for when scouting new Urby locations,” says David Barry, president of Ironstate. “Stamford has a vibrant and diverse economy that attracts young professionals to other Urby developments in New York and New Jersey. Urby’s proximity to the waterfront, walkability and access to mass transit will introduce a new lifestyle that hasn’t been seen in the Stamford residential market.”

Urby is a complete rethink of the rental-housing concept. The complex will include studio, one- and two-bedroom units with shared communal spaces that encourage interaction among neighbors. The units will have sizeable layouts and high ceilings; come equipped with built-in wardrobes, storage spaces, bookshelves, window treatments and lighting; will each have a washer/dryer; and will be pre-installed for Wi-Fi. Future residents will also have keyless building and apartment entry through smart technology systems located throughout the development.

Amenities will also include a gym; a landscaped courtyard with fire pits and a saltwater swimming pool; and a communal kitchen that will be used to host culinary classes, wine tastings and events hosted by local business owners, including pop-up dinners. A café with outdoor seating will be located at the entrance to the development and will be open to the public.


5 SUPPORTING COMMUNITY GROWTH

For nearly a century, the Stamford Board of Realtors (BOR) has been a reliable source of information for homeowners, businesses and people who are seeking to move to Stamford. “As a realtor and president-elect of the Stamford Board of Realtors, it’s important that the community know we are here to protect homeownership, and support Stamford, Stamford housing and buyers and sellers,” says Vikktoria Cooper of Coldwell Banker.

As the BOR turns ninety-nine this year, it will continue to provide tools, resources and support to promote professional growth within its membership, which meets regularly to discuss trends and topics that impact our community. (The organization also represents Realtors in Hartford in legislative meetings.)

Looking ahead, the organization vows to continue supporting community organizations as well, such as Stamford Boys & Girls Club, Inspirica, New Covenant Center and Stamford Public Schools. The BOR has awarded scholarships to students for thirty-two years, and in 2016 increased the number of $1,000 scholarships from eight to ten.

“Call up any Ivy League school and ask them what they think about kids coming out of Stamford,” says Dave Campana of Halstead Property, who was the 2017 vice president of the BOR. “[They say that] they are our next generation of leaders.”

At a time when Stamford is experiencing growth, the BOR remains positive the city will continue to attract people and businesses who want to call it home. “Stamford is a great place to live,’’ Cooper says. “We have the parks, the schools, the restaurants, the social scene. There’s is something for everyone.”


6 THE PRICE MUST BE RIGHT

Though homeowners might find comfort in the fact that signs increasingly point to a growing seller’s market, some homes continue to languish on the market for months. Sellers, be warned: For properties to move, experts say, they must be priced correctly and in good condition.

Among the challenges sellers continue to face is competition from Stamford’s booming rental market. Many people moving to Stamford are content to pay rent—and enjoy the associated amenities such as gym membership, covered parking and maintenance-free living—instead of purchasing a home. “You would think it is a seller’s market,” says Vikktoria Cooper of Coldwell Banker. “But we don’t have as many updated homes to meet the expectations of today’s buyer. We get people looking, but if the home is not updated, [buyers] go to the rental market.

“We have to talk the sellers out of their lofty [hopes]. We’re not selling the memories and history of the house. The condition, price and location are what sells a house,” adds Cooper

To emphasize her point, Cooper points to The Ridges, the area below the Merritt Parkway between Long Ridge and High Ridge roads, which has enjoyed market appeal recently; in 2015, forty-six homes sold in the neighborhood, and sixty-one sold in 2016. But only forty-two had sold in 2017 by early December. “It’s a supply and demand issue,” she says. “We don’t have enough homes. When we have an influx of potential buyers, then we go to the condition and price of the home.”

Dave Campana of Halstead Property says homes priced under $600,000 sell quickly. There is however, a shortage of single-family homes for sale right now. Only 318 homes were listed in early December, about half of what is needed to satisfy demand. If a home needs work, a potential buyer will stay on the sidelines. “Today’s buyers are very picky,’’ Campana says. “It’s the HGTV generation: Some renters pay a ridiculous amount of money to get the countertops and finishes they want. They’re getting new, and feel it’s a value proposition.”

It’s a quality in buyers that is affecting Stamford’s condominium market, too, which remained flat in 2017. “Condos, like houses, need to be in showcase condition when they are put on the market,” Cooper says. “New rentals are in pristine condition, and if a renter has an option, they are more likely to choose the home in the best condition.”

Even though rentals remain key to Stamford real estate growth, Campana believes purchasing a home is the best long-term financial investment. “[Future buyers will] understand it’s not just about having a new ‘this’ or ‘that.’ You buy a house, and at some point, you pay it off and you are not subject to a landlord. At some point, they’ll understand that renting is not in their best financial interest.”


7 FOLLOW THE MONEY

Stamford’s residential real estate market heads into 2018 with stability, low inventory and prices that are slowly rising. The picture has stayed steady for the past few years, and most experts feel the city is poised for growth over the next five years.

A mood of guarded optimism prevails, however, because recent federal legislation could impact real estate prices. New tax laws would eliminate the deduction for state and local income taxes, and cap the deduction for property taxes at $10,000. While most of the country would not be impacted, the new legislation could have a strong effect on Stamford and the rest of the tri-state area, where property taxes for many soar beyond the $10,000 threshold. “That will cause people to pause momentarily,” says Barbara Hickey of William Pitt Sotheby’s. “When these policies hit the market, there is all kinds of noise. I think people will pause, but I think it’s only going to be temporary. I think we’ll get back to business as usual when the noise settles down. When the spring market hits, I think we’ll be looking at another strong year.”

With the passage of the Tax Reform Act, Tom Rich of F.D. Rich & Co. hopes to see more corporate expansion. “I am not thrilled about the elimination of deductions such as the state income tax and some of the real estate related tax deductions but, on balance, I don’t think it leads to an unwinding of the for-sale housing market,” he says.

Working in Stamford’s favor is its ability to better withstand vagaries in the housing market because of its range of housing. “We have something for everybody,” Hickey says.

Midpriced homes, those between $500,000 and $750,000, sell quickly. The most popular market for home purchases in Stamford was in the under-$1 million market. While sales volume fell slightly in 2017, the primary reason was the lack of inventory in price ranges that buyers coveted. Some homes on the market are listed for more than what buyers are willing to pay.

“If the house is properly prepared and accurately priced, it is going to sell,” Hickey says. “Consumers have spent a lot of time educating themselves on property values. You cannot fool them. Information is readily available and if the home is not priced right, people are willing to rent until they get what they want at a price they want to pay.”

Whether a rise in interest rates, which is expected in 2018, could put the brakes on the housing market in Stamford is up for debate. Penn Johnson, president of Stamford Mortgage Company, says it won’t. “Most buyers are not buying anywhere near the limit of their affordability,” he explains. “On an average loan size of $400,000, a rate increase of .5 percent leads payments to go up $120 per month, and that would be the same as paying 5 percent more for a home.” It’s also important to remember that today’s interest rates are still a bargain compared to a generation ago, when interest rates soared into double digits.

Even though rental properties are a hot commodity, Hickey believes tenants will eventually come to realize the value of purchasing. “This generation is very different,” Hickey says. “They do things in a different order. They are looking for no commitments or responsibility well into their twenties and thirties, and this trend is going to continue. However, at some point, they’ll realize the benefits of homeownership, that they’re not just purchasing a house, they’re purchasing a home, the place you return to at the end of every day, [where you] raise a family, good days and bad, meet your neighbors, build a life. The beauty of Stamford is that we have so many wonderful neighborhoods that many people still want to call home.”

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