Published May 05. 2013 4:00AM
The $17.75 million sale of a mansion in the Watch Hill section of Westerly hat has been widely reported as the new home of pop-music superstar Taylor Swift could bring attention to the region's high-end real estate market as it shakes off a stretch of slow sales.
"It can't hurt, for sure," said John Bolduc, chief executive of the Eastern Connecticut Association of Realtors, a professional organization that tracks real estate markets in New London and Windham counties.
While sales of $1 million-plus homes in southeastern Connecticut haven't been going gangbusters in the past year - inventories are at levels that would take more than three years to clear at the current pace - agents said last week that activity appears to be picking up and sellers who largely had given up are now testing the waters again.
One example: The home of former Mashantucket Pequot tribal leader Skip Hayward at 50-58 Morgan Point Road in Groton sold last week for $2.5 million.
"It's ticking up slowly," said Jennifer Caulfield of William Pitt Sotheby's International Realty in Essex. "We're cautiously optimistic."
Jane Macy Pfeffer, who has a partnership with Caulfield called Jennifer & Jane Associates, was the referring agent for the Watch Hill sale of what is known locally as the Harkness House. Pfeffer said a confidentiality agreement precludes her from talking about the sale, but The Boston Globe reported that the 11,000-square-foot seaside cottage, not far from the Ocean House hotel, was purchased with cash.
A deed identified the buyer as Harbor Land Revocable Trust, and Leslie Pelley was listed as trustee. Sellers were identified as James Benson, former chief executive of John Hancock Life Insurance, and his wife Marlene.
Pfeffer said the deal was completed despite the fact that the Harkness House was not officially on the market. As with many multimillion-dollar deals, she said, networking between agents who are familiar with the individual circumstances of high-end homeowners often can help identify properties to meet very specific desires.
"You become aware that they're out there," Pfeffer said. "It's like underground networking."
Pfeffer would not talk about any homes in the Old Saybrook area that her client might have been shown - and she wouldn't discuss the name of the buyer except to reiterate what was on legal papers - but one source said it was widely known that Swift viewed the Fenwick section estate, once owned by the late actress Katharine Hepburn, which is currently on the market for $30 million.
The 23-year-old Swift was known to have been looking for another home in New England after buying and then selling a mansion near Ethel Kennedy in Hyannis Port, Mass., to be near one-time flame Conor Kennedy. She sold the $4.6 million property after a breakup with the young Kennedy, The Globe reported.
The more than 5-acre property in Watch Hill features seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms and a five-car garage. The 1930 mansion, which sits 65 feet above a private beach, previously had been on the market for $24 million, so local agents said it appears as if the buyer got a deal.
No bidding wars
High-end buyers, like everyone else these days, are not getting involved in crazy bidding wars, agents said. Deals are rampant and include extremely low rates for jumbo mortgages that can sneak below the 3 percent level, they added.
"There has to be a perception of value," Caulfield of Sotheby's said. "They're not overspending for property."
With a good number of high-end homes available, special properties - such as one listed for $13 million on Sequassen Avenue in Fenwick - are being sought, said Pfeffer, the listing agent.
The Sequassen compound, which includes a separate guest house, features water views on three sides, a home theater, a library, a maid's room, a master-bedroom balcony overlooking a lighthouse and more than 7,000 square feet of space.
Like a similar property Pfeffer sold last year in Old Saybrook for $5.3 million - the highest price ever paid for a home on the Connecticut River, she said - the compound has been attracting a great deal of interest from top executives and well-known personalities.
People seeking multimillion-dollar homes are often looking in a variety of locations all across New England, she added, and perhaps throughout the country.
"It's not location-specific," Caulfield said of high-end shoppers. "It's really what sends them when they walk in and see a property."
And, because they tend to be very busy executives, high-end buyers are looking for a turn-key experience with a minimum of hassles. In the vacation-home market, especially, many are happy to buy a home fully furnished, agents said.
Stock market signals
Pfeffer said the financial crisis of 2008 may have hurt housing sales nationwide, but it wasn't until 2010-11 that the bottom dropped out of the luxury market locally. Now, though, with the stock market hitting new highs, agents are hopeful that the tide has turned.
"It's a hell of a lot better market than it was," said Jim Michalove, owner of Seaboard Properties in Stonington and one of the agents involved in the Watch Hill transaction.
Michalove said prices in Watch Hill fell 25 percent to 35 percent after the financial crisis but have been buoyed recently, even though they remain well below what they were at the height of the market.
But he was cautious about proclaiming a major turnaround.
"It certainly is not a boom," he said. "It's a change of sentiment."
Others appeared to be more confident that a turnaround has begun.
"I haven't been this busy in four or five years," said Jamie Childs, an agent who specializes in high-end homes at Sotheby's.
Childs, who has two estates listed for sale in the exclusive Old Black Point section of Niantic, said he has a closing on a more than $2 million sale scheduled Friday and is in negotiation with another buyer at a similar level.
"I think things have to be priced right," Childs said. "It just makes no sense to shoot for the stars."
Nort Wheeler, owner of the Mystic River Building Co. and former president of the Home Builders Association of Eastern Connecticut, said new construction is starting to pick up as well. And, unlike in the past locally, he said, many of the new homes involve tear-downs of previous structures.
"If the world is stable and the stock market is good, people will build," he said.
Nearly all of the 409 million-dollar sales recorded during the past dozen years in eastern Connecticut have involved shoreline communities. The local Realtors association reported the peak year was 2007, when 83 million-dollar homes changed hands.
Six years ago, the region recorded 14 million-dollar sales in the first quarter; this year, there were only three, which is a fairly typical year, according to Realtors official Bolduc. Stonington has the most million-dollar homes currently on the market, followed by Groton, Lyme, East Lyme and Old Saybrook.
Many luxury home buyers, particularly in the vacation-home segment, are drawn from out of the area, agents said. Executives from places such as Fairfield County, Hartford, Manhattan and Boston, especially those with boating ties, find southeastern Connecticut an attractive place to vacation or perhaps retire, they said.
Agents said that during the luxury market's dry years, people with money were sitting on the sidelines, waiting until others leapt into real estate before committing to a purchase themselves. Now that the stock market is doing well and some prominent sales are making headlines, they said, more people might open up their pocketbooks.
"There is money out there," said Les Bray, a market analyst who runs Sound Portfolio Investments in Stonington. "People are just being a little more careful when they pull the trigger."
|THE LOCAL MARKET|
|Town-by-town listing of $1 million-plus homes for sale|
|East Lyme ||10|
|Old Saybrook ||10|
|Old Lyme ||9|
|North Stonington ||1|
|Total* (New London County)|| 84|
|* Note: Old Saybrook is in Middlesex County|
|Source: Connecticut Multiple Listing Service|