Paying Attention to Your Surroundings

When you’re looking at a property, how much time do you spend outside looking at the surroundings? What are the adjacent properties? How do they look? Are you near a major road? Are there commercial or other non-residential parcels near you? Is there a farm or undeveloped land abutting or near the property?

When we view homes with buyers we try to spend some time evaluating the adjoining and nearby spaces. This isn’t necessarily to figure out if they’re going to have good neighbors or not. It’s to understand if there is the potential for change to the landscape around them.

Orchard

For example, a few months ago I was showing some clients property that abutted a farm. The listing agent took care to advertise that it was adjacent to the farm and used this as a selling feature because it was peaceful and scenic. But what if some day the farm isn’t a farm anymore? What if someday the farm land is sold? What does it become? Most likely residential usage, but that’s not always guaranteed. I pointed out to the buyers that the house we were looking at used to be part of the farm too, but at some point some of the farm land was sold to build this development. That could happen in the future and there could then be additional development that’s in the currently tranquil backyard.

We’ve seen some examples recently of local homeowners contesting development to open land that abuts or is near their residential developments. In West Hartford, residents are speaking out against the proposed sale of 9 acres of land by the American School for the Deaf (ASD) to a home builder. In this instance, people bought houses that backed to a non-residential use property. That non-residential use property has decided to change the use of their land. They would like to sell it to a developer. But what would have happened if ASD simply expanded on their own campus? What if they grew their school and built more buildings, parking lots or playing fields on their undeveloped property? The neighboring properties would have been impacted by that as well.

With a changing real estate landscape, we see these development conflicts come up all of the time. The West End of Hartford faced a similar development challenge in 2012 when the University of Hartford wanted to sell part of its campus to CREC for a new elementary school to be developed, which backed to residential development. I would expect a lot of back and forth between the Town of West Hartford and the University of Connecticut when UConn divests of its West Hartford campus in the upcoming months. What will become of that property, which is located in a residential area? How will that change the landscape for current property owners near the campus?

The point I’m trying to make here, and that we make when we’re showing buyers homes, is that what you see near here today may not be the same down the line. Some properties face more opportunities of a changing landscape than others. The change in landscape around you may actually help your property values. They aren’t always a negative. Think of what Blue Back Square has done to help West Hartford Center- there was a positive impact on residential property values in the Center because of it. That being said, it’s important to be aware of the possibility of change because not all change will be viewed as positive. Don’t just focus on the interior of a property, spend some time thinking about the outside and its surroundings.

A Ride on Walnut and Homestead

The first thing I learned about central Connecticut was that all roads lead to Hartford; literally. I was out at UConn Storrs for a summer program during college. When I looked at the map to try to figure out how to get somewhere, anywhere really, it appeared as though all the major roads radiated from the City of Hartford like the spokes of a wheel. The City itself is set up the same way – all the roads begin Downtown and fan out in each direction. I like to explore, and today we’re travelling the Walnut/Homestead corridor, which connects Downtown with the northwest portion of the City.

It is easy to miss Walnut Street if you’re not looking for it. Standing here, in the middle of Chapel Street North and looking west, it is one of the options for going straight – the right two lanes.

Chapel North

There are no signs suggesting that this is an interesting direction to travel, but in fact it is the shortest route to get from Downtown to the intersection of Route 44 (Albany Ave) and Route 189 (Bloomfield Ave) in the top left corner of the City. So if you’re going to places like northern West Hartford, western Bloomfield, Avon, Simsbury or beyond, then this route should be a consideration. Don’t follow the signs onto the highway … stay right and head over that bridge.

Highway

After passing the Isham-Terry House and the City of Hartford’s Public Safety Complex on your right, you will cross a bridge taking you over the rail lines – Union Station is just to the south. Looking east from the center of the bridge, back towards the City, you can see the skyline.

03 Skyline

Looking west you can see Club Charisma. I’m not current on the local club scene, so its current status is not clear to me – I wouldn’t expect it to be open at 9:30 in the morning when I was taking these photos. The tire store beyond it is definitely an active business and there continues to be two well-marked lanes in each direction.

04 Charisma

Waiting at the intersection of Edwards and Walnut, the Quirk Middle School is on the north side of Walnut.

05 Quirk

The south side is a series of commercial buildings that are mostly not in use.

06 133 Walnut

One of the recurring themes on this stretch of Walnut is that space is available. Call your commercial real estate agent, there are opportunities here. It’s just a couple blocks from the highway and Downtown.

07 Available

Continuing west on Walnut the Beacon Light & Supply Company is on the north side of the street. I love their mural, and had to post a picture of their building again.

08 Beacon Light

Walnut Street ends at Garden Street. This intersection is well done with a welcome sign, sidewalks and decorative lighting. Walnut has been connected to Homestead Avenue to provide continuity to the corridor, which is how a decorative area appeared. It is legitimately inviting.

09 Welcome

Looking back to the east, towards Downtown, you can see the barren commercial zone that we just rode through. The segment has a yellow centerline, but not lane or shoulder markings. The whole road is about 3 lanes wide, 1.5 in each direction, though I have seen people attempt to pass since there is some ambiguity.

10 Skyline

A couple short blocks to the south is The Hartford’s campus, just over the railroad tracks.

11 The Hartford

The Hartford even has an enormous parking garage between Walnut and its campus. I don’t know the politics of parking at the company, but if you could score a spot there then you would have a very easy commute from all the neighborhoods and towns to the northwest of the City.

12 Parking

But I digress … back to the Walnut/Homestead corridor. Continuing west on Homestead, we find new kinds of buildings on both sides of the street. The south side between Garden and Sigourney is large industrial/commercial sites. There are two vacant buildings and an empty lot. Electrical Wholesalers had quite a lot of space in multiple buildings on the Walnut/Homestead corridor and appears to have recently moved to Ledyard Street in Hartford (down by the airport).

13 Electrical

The north side of the street has residential buildings. These two are in good shape, others are vacant and in worse condition.

14 Residential

That’s pretty much how it goes until the intersection of Sigourney. Here is the view looking back towards Downtown – notice we’re continuing with one-ish lane in each direction and a minimalist approach to striping the road.

15 Skyline

The intersection of Sigourney and Homestead is unremarkable. The two corner parcels on the south side of the road are vacant lots. One is owned by the City and has a sign up saying it is for sale. The two corner lots on the north side of the road are homes of a residential multi-family scale. Sigourney takes you directly to the Aetna campus to the south, so again, this route is an opportunity for commuters who work in Asylum Hill.

Continuing west, the environment switches to mostly residential uses on both sides of Homestead. The buildings are larger, with three-unit multi-families and larger apartment buildings. Note that the street continues to be unmarked, without even a center line to guide drivers.

16 From Sigourney

This segment is a bit of a hill, with these brick buildings lining the street along the way. There are some very handsome properties on this stretch of the neighborhood, which makes up part of a historic district.

17 Brick

At the intersection of Homestead and Woodland the character of the street changes again. It goes back to larger buildings, and the road expands to two marked lanes in each direction. The St. Francis Hospital campus is two blocks south on Woodland. This photo looks west through the intersection.

18 Woodland

From Woodland Street to the end of Homestead Avenue at Albany, the properties are zoned for commercial uses on both sides of the road. Some are in use, some appear vacant. There are blighted buildings and vacant lots. This is a return to the large industrial uses. One of the operating businesses right at the intersection is the Smith-Worthington Saddlery, which has been open since 1794.

19 Saddlery

There is a gas station and a car wash across the street from the saddlery that seem to be successful businesses. But as we head west out of the intersection, we begin to see the businesses that didn’t make it. The Stanley P. Rockwell Company had an interesting building when they were still on north side of Homestead.

20 Rockwell

Philbrick-Booth & Spenser had a sprawling compound on the south side of Homestead where they apparently made steel castings. Their insignia can be seen on a building across the street that appears to be in use, so they must have had a campus of their own at one point.

21 Philbrick

There is an abandoned gas station on the north side, along with some other vacant lots that are used for parking.

22 Gas Station

And then there is this interesting looking building on the south side that is fenced off with a sign that says an environmental cleanup is in progress.

23 Cleanup

This stretch of Homestead is not entirely abandoned. The Salvation Army has a big building in good condition. And Interstate Battery also has space in another building. There is a welding shop and a Webster Bank that are both positives bringing up the area.

24 Welding

We have just about reached the end of Homestead, where it intersects with Albany Avenue and extends as Westbourne Parkway. Here is the view of the last block of Homestead looking northwest towards Albany. The Hartford Technical Institute was the most recent use of the vacant white building on the right, while the University of Hartford’s new performing arts center is the brick building in the background behind all the cars.

25 Harttech

The whole Walnut/Homestead corridor follows the rail line, which is still active. This particular train appeared to be pulling empty cars and travelling incredibly slowly as it made its way towards Union Station.

26 Train

And that concludes our ride down Walnut Street and Homestead Avenue. I see a formerly vibrant commercial corridor that could be active again. I see an underutilized commuter route from the neighborhoods and towns to the northwest of Hartford. I see attractive buildings that are currently not in use. But overall, I see an opportunity for the City of Hartford. More on this to follow.

Maintaining Your Property in the Winter

Dear Seller of a Vacant House,

We had our first real snowstorm of the season on Saturday. Around Hartford most places ended up with 3-4 inches of snow. Really nothing compared to some of the storms from last year, but still an amount that most would consider needs to be shoveled. So why did I, and my clients, have to tromp through this on Sunday when going to view your home?



Now, I know you don’t live here any more. You’re across the country at your new place and have other things on your mind. And at least it wasn’t like the debacle I stumbled across last year. But your house is still here and you are trying to sell it. Why not try to welcome the people that may want to buy it?

If you could, please hire someone to plow your driveway and shovel your front walk and sidewalk. I know my clients and I would appreciate it and most likely your neighbors will too. Also, if you don’t have your driveway and walks shoveled you’re essentially letting bad guys know that you’re not around and no one really cares for the place. They may decide that you also don’t care about your copper pipes and will let themselves in to take them. Just sayin’…

Courant Companion: That Empty Feeling

The cover story of today’s real estate section features an article titled That Empty Feeling about the impact of vacant homes on a neighborhood. The wide-ranging piece provides a lot of interesting and important information about homes that are considered eyesores.

That Empty Feeling

A critical point in the overall thesis, and therefore a focal point of the article, is the example of a dilapidated property that actually hurts the value of neighboring homes. Unfortunately, a very poor example was selected. As agents familiar with the property and the neighborhood in question, we feel the example actually works against the overall angle of the story.

The author quoted a real estate agent about a bank owned home in Hartford’s West End. The agent asserts that the home “significantly and negatively impacts a West End homeowner’s ability to sell.” As evidence, the agent “points to 13 properties in the West End neighborhood listed above $300,000 that have been removed from the market or have had contracts expire since January 2009.”

We have a number of concerns about three short paragraphs in an otherwise well-done article.

We don’t believe that the highlighted property’s exterior appearance rises to the level of “eyesore.” Although the assertion that the “landscaping has not been maintained” is factually correct, the lot is very different than the yards with long grass discussed elsewhere in the article. This property is set quite close to the street for a larger home and has far more plantings than grassy areas in the front yard. Most of the landscaping is hidden behind a brick wall, meaning that it is not visible from the street. Is there neglect? Sure, but the home isn’t sitting in what looks like a hay field. And as a brick building with a slate roof, the neglect has had relatively little impact on the overall exterior appearance.

We don’t believe that the highlighted property has scared off buyers. The house in question is on a short street that constitutes its own little neighborhood with only 18 homes. Three of the homes sold this year, so clearly those buyers were not deterred. One could argue that the bank-owned home pushed the price down on the other homes on the street. However, our experience as active agents in the neighborhood is that prices have fallen equally for all homes in that price range, even those without nearby distress. After little activity in 2009, there has been a much more interest in high-end homes in the West End during 2010.

The assertion that 13 homes priced above $300,000 have come off the market without selling is inaccurate and misleading. The inaccurate portion of the statement is that the correct number is 13. In fact, there have been more than 13 single-family homes priced above $300,000 that have not sold. The number increases when multi-family properties and condominiums are also considered. The misleading portion of the statement is the implications that these failed sales are related to vacant homes. Some of the sellers received offers that they chose not to accept. Others changed their minds about moving because of their personal or professional situations. Still others were simply unrealistic about the value of their home. We cannot think of a single West End property that was unsellable due to a poorly maintained neighboring property. Yet we can think of multiple examples of homes that sold despite the neighboring home needing significant maintenance.

It’s unfortunate that the author did not confirm these West End facts with an agent active in the neighborhood. Especially since there are plenty of agents with West End experience that would be happy to contribute to an article. The last time we counted, there were 18 real estate agents that lived in the (small) neighborhood, many of whom are very successful and are regularly quoted in the Courant. There are also plenty of agents who do multiple deals a year in the West End though they live in other areas.

We felt the need to speak out because the article makes the West End the face of neglected properties. Although it’s true that home values have fallen in the West End, and properties have come off the market without selling, these things have been happening elsewhere in Greater Hartford too. Since real estate values fall for a variety of reasons, suggesting that one bank-owned home is causing buyers to avoid the entire neighborhood (the 13 listings removed from the market) is overly simplistic. It may tie the story together, but it’s just not true.

Similarly, one poorly researched section does not negate all the value of this interesting article. We would definitely recommend reading it – just take the portion about the West End property with a grain of salt.