Luxury homes selling again in New Castle County

Laird Bunch of Brandywine Fine Properties/Sotheby’s International Realty has this home at 413 W. Rockland Road under contract for nearly $4 million.

The era of MBNA executives buying up grand old homes and Chateau Country estates is kaput. The new buyers are entrepreneurs, foreign investors, some surgeons, big-firm attorneys, UD’s new athletic department execs and employees of Incyte, Chemours, JP Morgan Chase and Corporation Services Co.

Two pricey homes with MBNA honchos in their lineage are up for sale — a $5.5 million home on Old Kennett Pike and a $4.95 million one on Montchanin Road.

The A-list real estate market in New Castle County is shifting but it is also picking up steam. Sales of $750,000-plus homes are up 9.5 percent so far this year, according to Bright MLS.

“The loss of MBNA was a huge loss, and we really haven’t recovered from that,” said Stephen Crifasi of Patterson Schwartz. “We do need more companies coming in. But, in the month of May our business at Patterson Schwartz was off the chart, even in the upper group.”

Plum single-family homes with price tags of $750,000 and up are selling again — if they are in HGTV shape. Twenty-nine homes priced over $750,000 have already sold this year in New Castle County, with an average price of $1.08 million, according to Bright MLS. They sold for an average of 87.5 percent of the list price. In April, 21 percent of sales were cash sales.

Those are stunning statistics for a county where the median income is $65,476 and only one in 13 workers now earns more than $100,000.

Northern New Castle County is chock full of plum properties less than 15 minutes from downtown. Young attorneys, well-heeled entrepreneurs and others who can afford them are buying again. Mix in foreign investors. One Chinese investor paid cash for eight houses. She favors Ryan Homes.

While no one has purchased the most expensive home in the county, a $5.5 million former duPont estate at 900 Old Kennett Road, million-dollar homes are selling this spring.

Joseph Pluscht, president of Patterson-Schwartz, said upper-end sales have improved, but 2015-2016 was slow. “There’s been some slight uptick in the market. It’s still not robust,” Pluscht said.

“We’re seeing some strengthening in the market because interest rates have been considerably lower and there’s been stability,” said Stephen Mottola of the Mottola Group. “What the stability has done is allow the buyer to have a confidence that they’re not going to buy something and then what they’ve bought could be sold for 4 to 5 percent less than they paid. In the past, that was a problem in our area. People were afraid to pull the trigger.”

“What it comes down to is we are an established market. You can’t drive 20 miles and get more bang for your buck,” said Victoria Dickinson of Patterson Schwartz.

Mia Burch of Long & Foster, who markets pricey properties in person, online and on social media, knows the litany of reasons why northern Delaware sells: “Property taxes are cheap. There’s no sales tax. You are two hours away from everything. And the taxes are friendly to retirees.”

Victoria Dickinson of Patterson Schwartz just showed a house to an Incyte employee and one to her first Chemours transferee.

“I think the market is OK. It’s not great,” Dickinson said. “There’s a lot of inventory over $1 million. It’s definitely top-heavy, and there is definitely resistance much above $1.4, $1.5, $1.6 [million], but $800,000 to $1.2 [million] will sell if it’s in good shape. You’ll get multiple offers in the $800,000-to-$1.2 million range. If your house is in good shape there is demand at every price level. If it has an open kitchen and the old windows have been replaced, it will sell and sell quick.”

Mottola said the market expanded when UD changed out its athletic department last fall. “They cleaned house down there. That brought probably a dozen buyers into the market, so that was a little kick. Then, JP Morgan Chase is moving people in. Incyte is moving people in. Those companies are not making up for the void, but they definitely help.”

New construction is selling better:

• When Crooked Billet, a new $1.2 million-and-up over-55 neighborhood next to Westover Hills, opened lot reservations in March, about one-third
of the lots were signed right off the bat.

• Marra Homes just put the finishing touches on its first over-55 home at Wagoner’s Row, a picture-perfect estate property in Greenville, and eight of the 12 homes are already under contract. Prices start at $1.2 million.

• Five out the six homes at Stone Brook, a $1.25 million-and-up project wedged between Stonegates and Wilmington Country Club, sold the first week preconstruction reservations opened.

Ten hours of interior design consultation comes with the purchase.

Workers finishing a home at Wagoner’s Row, a 55-plus community in Greenville. The property was formerly owned by R.R.M. Carpenter Jr., the former owner of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Plush said the new construction that’s come on market has an impact on resales. “For the few buyers who are in that price point, if they can choose new over something that currently exists, they will choose new,” he said.

He added that older construction that’s move-in ready with all the bells and whistles someone in that price threshold expects, will also sell.

Agents said the county’s shrinking job base and younger buyers’ preference for simpler homes has made the luxury market a buyer’s market.

And, they said, buyers with million-dollar purses can afford to be choosy. They’ll walk away from any house that isn’t ready for its close up.

“Over $500,000, it’s not the seller’s market that you’re hearing about with the rest of the market,” said Ashle Wilson Bailey of Levy Wilson. “You have to go the extra mile to have your home really prepared for the sale. Buyers will look at your home with a fine-tooth comb when you’re in the high price point and they’ll be very quick to move to the next home if yours does not pass the test. They have a lot to choose from in the higher price point, so they’re looking to rule out properties.”

“They really don’t want to do much work. Their personal time is critical,” said Crifasi of Patterson Schwartz. “If you think it’s going to cost $100,000 to do the kitchen and bath, you have to go down $150,000. If they’re going to be living through a project, they want to be rewarded for that. Otherwise, they’ll go down the street and buy the next house that’s totally done.”

Laird Bunch of Brandywine Fine Properties/Sotheby’s International Realty, who currently has a $4 million property under contract, said out-of-staters typically don’t want to get into a huge rehab job, but local buyers often are content to take on a project for a property they fancy.

“Some of the older estate homes just haven’t been kept up as much as like so someone would have to do work. If the work is done in the old houses, they are salable. If it’s not, then, it just takes people more time to get their hands around what has to be done,” Bunch said. “Someone will take the risk and put some time and money into it if they’re already established here and they’ve got a place that they call home while they’re working on something else. Local people who have been around and know these properties are willing to put money into them.”

Agents say HGTV has shifted buyers’ perception of how homes should look, and builders and sellers will be more successful if they adapt to HGTV perspective.

“Every single person watches it,” said Burch of Long & Foster. “It doesn’t matter whether they are buying $50,000, $500,000 or $5 million. “HGTV really affects it. I ask, ‘Do you watch HGTV?’ You cannot sell your house in this living condition.”

Joseph Marra said the new-construction buyers at Wagoner’s Row also are selective about materials and finishes. “It’s not so much about the price as long as they get real quality,” he said. “Like high-end windows. Pella windows. Lifetime shingles. Real six-inch stone facing. Real brick. Real slate. Granites. Marbles. High-end kitchens. High-end floors. Hardwood floors throughout the house. No carpet.”

To counter what Burch calls “shiny syndrome” brought on by the sleek HGTV interiors, she advises her sellers to listen to the professionals who know what sells and what doesn’t.

“There’s a lot of resistance from sellers because they’ve got a lot of emotional attachment to the house where they’re raised their kids,” Burch said. “But the seller doesn’t set the price. It’s the market. The agent doesn’t set the price. It’s the market. Trust the professions when it comes to pricing and staging and photographing the house properly.”

Stephen Crifasi said it’s all about value, so sellers who put properties on sale at unrealistic prices rarely are rewarded.

“A lot of sellers think they have plenty of time to sell, but that works against you. In reality, if you’re on the market for extended periods of time, buyers will wonder what’s wrong with the property. When they do come in with offers, they’ll come in very low because it’s been on the market for so long.”

The refrain from agents and brokers is: listen to professional advice and your house is move likely to move. Laird Bunch said the sales process starts on the internet, not at the threshold, and agents know how to arrange the high-res pictures, video and drone shots that woo the buyers to visit properties.

What’s up with those picture-perfect homes in luxury neighborhoods that seem to be so empty passersby can see right through the backyards?

Some are unrealistically priced.

Some have instantly recognizable flaws. Asked about an address that had been on the market for 300-plus days, an agent instantly replied: “You’d have to be a billy goat to get up that driveway.”

Surprisingly, agents say a handful of homes in tip-top shape are just sitting waiting for their owners to unload much large properties so they can downsize to Centreville or Westover Hills.

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