Above, the Norwalk, Connecticut house Mike Wray and Julia Marshella bought after a long house-hunting journey.
The three houses in Westport, Connecticut, at 5 and 9 Guyer Road and 11 Valley Road, are positioned such that the front and back yards of any one of them are easily viewable from the other two. But they could just as easily be in Anytown, USA. The residents of each had disparate buying, selling or renting tales to tell after experiencing the frenetic 2022 spring and summer real estate market, with prices and mortgage rates locally and nationwide about as predictable as highway traffic.
When Covid-19 took hold in early 2020, many New Yorkers sought escape from the crowded city. Westport, an upscale bedroom community 52 miles east, saw a great many of those people buying and renting there. Thus, prices ratcheted up dramatically, and have remained high for the most part.
As with many real estate transactions in a tight market, when quick decisions are a must, emotions come into play as well, and did for our trio of storytellers. As luck would have it, the three neighbors all experienced happy endings.
THE BUYERS. Thirtyish Julia Marshella and Mike Wray, she a fundraiser for a nonprofit and he a financial advisor, have been married for just over a year. They rented for two years at 9 Guyer, having outlasted many other hopefuls, paying $4,200 monthly, and began looking to buy a home this past spring with their lease up for renewal.
“Before Connecticut we were used to renting apartments in New York City, which is a completely different process,” says Wray. “There the renter pays a fee to the agent. So we had to educate ourselves that a house here works completely differently. The homeowner pays both the buyer and seller agents. That’s how we met our REALTORⓡ (Susan Herrmann, of William Raveis Real Estate). She was the listing agent for our rental. Periodically she would email and ask if we were ready to buy yet.”
The couple found Herrmann to be crucial.
“She opened us up to different neighborhoods, because we were just looking in Westport,” says Marshella. “She explained that there were areas in nearby Norwalk, Wilton and Weston that were close to where we wanted to be and might have more availability. Which paid off because the first house we made an offer for was in Norwalk, and the one we ultimately bought is in Norwalk.”
With the market as sizzling hot as the lengthy summer heatwave, there was some angst for Julia and Mike, but Herrmann helped keep them cool and level-headed.
“Once we found houses we liked, it was up to the cost,” says Wray, “because pricing is like the wild west. Sellers knew they could be hyper-aggressive. Susan would tell us if a number was way off, since we didn’t have the same instincts and knowledge of the market. She provided a reality check on the pricing.”
They made competitive offers on six houses without success.
“There were times we’d have to go above the list price, but other times it was clear that the list was a complete reach,” explains Wray. “On one place we put in an offer significantly below list. Others we bid high because they were underpriced.”
Marshella notes that every house they bid on went for the asking price or well above it. Herrmann would advise them to think about what they were willing to bid but stressed that it was their decision.
“We would go home, think about a number and tell her,” Julia says. “Susan would reply that it sounds about right, or was too much. It was never too low. Sometimes she would tell us that what we offer is a fair price, but that it might not win. We lost several that we bid well above the ask and didn’t get. There were two we really thought we would win but didn’t.”
Herrmann was aware it would not be easy to buy in a frenzied market.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” she admits. “A couple of times I knew they would be the bridesmaids. One house they liked but didn’t get because they wouldn’t go to that ‘stupid’ price. And it ended up going for $25,000 over that stupid price.”
Julia and Mike looked at around 30 houses over several months, usually seeing two or three each weekend. There was pressure to act fast, which ramped up stress levels a bit.
“For many of them we went on a Saturday and they were sold by Monday,” says Wray. “That was a big obstacle, the fast turnaround. Plus you’d only have like 15 minutes in the house because of Covid. It was see the house and either make a bid fast or lose it. Houses that stayed on the market longer had delusional prices.”
Even making a fast bid was no guarantee of anything.
“For one house we were told there were already 14 offers,” says Marshella.
Herrmann understood the frustrations, but relied on her 13 years of experience in the business to keep Mike and Julia undeterred.
“I could see that they were getting discouraged, and as an agent that’s a hard place to be because you want to get it done for them,” she says. “Here were these really qualified people…optimal buyers, with every good credential going, and it was not getting done. But I wouldn’t let them just stupidly spend.
“It’s hard because as an agent you don’t want to see people way overpay. I would always advise them to know their top before they got in the heat of things. It helps frame the discussion and reminds people where they came from. That’s how we approached every house.”
Then one day in July, Mike and Julia went to Norwalk to see an antique house in pristine condition. It included three bedrooms, over 2,600 sq. ft. and a large backyard for their beloved dog, Artimus.
“We wanted it immediately,” admits Marshella. List was $819,000. They offered $925,000 and won.
“That felt right,” says Wray. “We thought that if they’d listed it for $925,000 it would have been reasonable.”
Herrmann thought the house was worth more in the 800s range, and told them so.
“But she agreed that there is often a big gap between what you might think it’s worth and what it’s actually going to take to get it,” says Wray. “She thought it was worth about 850, but we would not have gotten it for that. We knew there was another bid.”
The couple closed in late August, thrilled with what they now own and relieved not to have to house hunt again for a long time.
THE SELLER. Fiftyish Amy Feder decided in June to sell her five-bedroom house at 11 Valley. A clinical social worker, she’d raised two kids there mostly as a single parent. With the oldest now a software engineer in Seattle and the youngest away in college, it was time to downsize.
“I wanted to capitalize on the market and was also an empty nester,” she says. “I was aware of how hot the market was but didn’t realize that the number of homes on the market in Westport at that time was significantly lower than in past years.”
Having never sold a home before, she needed the expertise of a REALTORⓡ, and found one in Alexander Chingas from Coldwell Banker Realty – Westport Office.
“When I originally spoke to him last October prices were not as high as when I listed my house in February, because of supply and demand,” she relates. “There were many, many people looking and very few homes on the market. He recommended many things to make the house look perfect. I listened to everything he told me to do.”
Amy listed her home for $1.075 million. Before allowing anyone to view it she staged the house, as Chingas advised.
“I sold some stuff, left some things in and put some in storage,” she recalls. “It was not inexpensive to stage. It cost like $4,500.”
But the rented furnishings and objects, all expertly arranged by decorating professionals, rendered the spacious, modern home a virtual showcase.
“Alex had me do more as well…fix the walkway, painting, work on the floors, and other cosmetic things. Nothing dramatic, but everything he advised was helpful.”
Chingas, who’s been in the real estate business for 20 years, disclosed that while Amy’s house went up for sale at just the right time, there was no luck involved.
“We’d been in touch for a while about when the right time would be for her to make a move,” he says. “So we planned for her success…it wasn’t accidental, and that’s a very rewarding aspect of my work.”
Nevertheless, preparation was key in making sure there were no glitches.
“We worked upfront to perfect everything, especially with a property like Amy’s that we knew was going to get significant response right out of the gate,” he says. “The floor plans, the videos, the virtual tour. We scheduled a social media campaign, prepared the literature for prospective buyers, had QR code links so people could access a virtual brochure, and created a robust MLS listing.”
Feder’s selling experience was one every homeowner dreams of having: plenty of interest and a bidding war.
“We scheduled an open house in July from a Friday to a Monday with 50 showings,” she says. “Scheduled appointments were 15 minutes each. At times there were brokers directing traffic through the house. It was unbelievable.
“We had seven offers by Tuesday. Everyone who made an offer was aware there were others, so they made their second and final offers.”
Feder, who moved in with a friend while looking for something more permanent, chose a young couple with a baby who paid $1.225 million.
“I sold it to the people who I felt wanted it the most and were planning to live there for many years to come,” she says. “A young family, like how it was myself, with a golden retriever, which was also how it was myself.
“They wrote me a very lovely letter. There was a comparable offer from people who never even saw the house. I felt the couple who bought it loved it and would take really good care of the home where I lived for 22 years.”
THE RENTER. Suzy Sanchez’s has been a continuing saga. After a divorce several years ago, the fiftyish marketing specialist/website designer needed a new Westport home for herself and two teenage boys, who wanted to stay in the town’s school system.
“I was renting a house in Norwalk but didn’t like it,” she says. “The kids were in the Westport school district since their dad was still living here. They were there on weekdays during the school year.”
In late 2019 she saw a listing for the house at 5 Guyer. It was pre-Covid, so rents were high but manageable. She signed a two-year lease for $2,800.
Working full-time and freelancing on the side allowed her to pay the bills, barely. As long as the costs remained about the same she could stay put, at least until younger son Jesse went off to college.
Reality intruded when Covid arrived. With home prices and rents skyrocketing she was told that if she wanted a third year she’d need to pay $3,750 monthly.
“I was shocked, but not totally surprised because I knew rents were way high,” she admits. “But I thought the homeowners would give me a bit of a break. I knew they would raise the rent, but that was a colossal jump, and very difficult. They could have been more compassionate since I’d already been in the house two years, but there was no negotiation.
“I wouldn’t consider moving because I didn’t want Jesse’s life to be in disarray again. My older son, Emil, was in college at UMass by then. I wanted to make sure Jesse was safe and secure because I still had him here full time.”
Luckily she’d just changed jobs with a pay raise, and was able to cover the increase. Fast forward to spring 2022 and a new lease would be over $4,000. With Jesse joining Emil at UMass she could move on. But where?
A REALTORⓡ friend, Mary Garone, of Coldwell Banker Realty – Westport Office, did all the legwork, locating available apartments she could afford, checking them out in person and then updating Sanchez.
“I was so busy working there was no time to look at places,” says Sanchez. “She really saved the day for me.”
A new condo complex in Norwalk had just begun accepting tenants. Garone took Sanchez there on a Saturday and a lease was signed shortly thereafter for a spacious 2-bedroom. Sanchez even got 6 weeks free as part of an opening promotion.
“And the rent is much less than what I’ve been paying,” she says, exhaling. Garone was happy to help, acknowledging that a grateful renter now could be a buyer later.
“You always want to help a person renting that could be a future client,” she says. “For now she’s downsizing, perhaps can save a little money and buy a place in the future, so hopefully I can help her do that as well.”
Sanchez agrees. “What I’d like someday is to find an investment property to buy. Maybe in South Carolina or Florida. Some place we can all go and be together.”