Saturday, March 26, 2005

Housing boom shifts north

By Ellen G. Lahr
Berkshire Eagle Staff

When it came time to retire last year as pastor of Old Parish Church in Sheffield, the Rev. Arthur Kaufman and his wife, Susan, followed the customary practice for a retiring minister: They made plans to leave Sheffield, to give Kaufman's successor a comfortable entrée into the community.

"If I stayed, I'd be in the way," said Kaufman, reflecting the church tradition.

So the Kaufmans began house hunting, and their search took them to Sherwood Drive in Pittsfield. Not only would Pittsfield put Susan Kaufman a few blocks from her job at the Hillcrest campus of Berkshire Health Systems, but the sale of their simple ranch home would produce money to spare.

They sold their Sheffield home for $315,000 and paid $207,000 in cash for their new house. They had paid $114,00 for their Sheffield house in 1994.

'Pretty hot market'

"The goal was to find a house we could buy without a mortgage," Arthur Kaufman said. "But Pittsfield's a pretty hot market right now; the houses sell right away. We got into a bidding war with three other couples."

The Kaufmans are just one example of why Pittsfield's real estate market is hopping these days, according to city real estate brokers.

Along with the second-home buyers who are now looking for more modestly priced vacation homes north of Lenox, there's a trickle of South County long-timers who are cashing out of the area's high-priced market and buying comparable, but more affordable, houses in Pittsfield.

Jeffrey Rose of Coldwell Banker Rose Real Estate in Pittsfield said the county is "becoming less stratified. The imaginary line above Lenox is blurring because of the limited options in South County."

He said he's familiar with buyers who have businesses, or jobs, in South County and who are making the move north.

"They are cashing out. They are realizing they can have the same home just 15 minutes north, for considerably less money than what they can sell for," he said.

Although the under-$150,000 price range is hot, brokers say, higher-priced sales are becoming common.

Philip Coleman and his wife, Robin Fleet, sold their Lenox house under the arching tree canopy on Cliffwood Street for $561,000 in December 2003; they had purchased the home in 1997 for $352,500.

Last year, the couple, and their 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, headed off to London for business reasons and a lifestyle change, Coleman wrote in an e-mail this week. They will return to the area next week and will move into their new 4,000-square-foot 1800s Victorian house on Broad Street in Pittsfield. The price: $328,500.

"The housing market in Lenox is, frankly, ridiculously overpriced, so much so that we wouldn't buy there now even if we could afford it," he wrote. "I don't know what people are thinking, paying $600,000 or $700,000 or $1 million or more, for ordinary houses. ... There's such an imbalance, it's kind of kooky."

The new house, a former bed-and-breakfast, has five bedrooms, six baths, two parlors, a dining room, butler's pantry, hardwood floors, pocket doors and gingerbread trim, he wrote.

"We have bought a better located, quieter, larger and better appointed home for a lot less money," he wrote. "My wife Robin and daughter Sarah have not seen the house except in photos. That should be interesting!"

Coleman and Fleet checked out the city schools and found that their daughter will have ample access to advanced placement classes. And Pittsfield "seems to be coming around, little by little," Coleman wrote. "Our neighborhood is really nice, and we know several families there already."

Their extra cash is earmarked for business and personal use, including some investment in the new house.

Brokers say there's a markedly low number of homes on the market in the city -- 90 were listed last week with the Multiple Listing Service -- along with a surge in first-time homebuyers, vacation-home seekers and city residents looking to downsize to smaller homes. All those factors have converged to force prices up for Pittsfield sellers.

Sandra Carroll, executive director of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, said the median house price in Pittsfield has risen from $105,000 in 2000 to $172,000 for the first three months of this year. Last year, median sales stood at $150,000. The figures are based on sales handled by brokers.

South of the border, most towns' median sales prices are comfortably above $300,000.

"I've been in business 33 years, and this is the worst inventory I've seen in a long time," said Arnold Perras of Century 21 A. Perras Real Estate. "We've historically had a good inventory, a good balance of buyers and sellers."

What's happening, brokers say, is a house goes on the market, the brokers schedule an open house, and a crowd shows up.

"Local buyers are all watching for that open house on a Saturday morning," said Pam Roberts of Roberts & Associates in Lenox, where agent Iris Cohen handled the Coleman-Fleet purchase. "And if you see a lot of people, a lot of people will step up to the plate, and the price rises."

Finding the ideal house

Stephen Radin measures the newly reconstructed opening from the kitchen to the living room of his new home on Mountain Drive in Pittsfield on Wednesday. Photo: Caroline Bonnivier / Berkshire Eagle Staff

Stephen and Helen Radin, now retired, were on the hunt for a smaller house than the one they have owned for 10 years in Great Barrington. They looked all over the area, including in South County, but found the house they wanted on Mountain Drive in Pittsfield.

"Helen had 20 conditions, and I had one. I wanted a brook in the back yard," Stephen Radin said. "We may have overpaid, but I got the brook."

This month, they closed the deal for $330,000. Their Great Barrington house, purchased for $140,000, is on the market for $499,000. The Radins financed their purchase with an interest-only home equity line from Banknorth, and when their Great Barrington house sells, they'll use the cash to pay off the equity loan, Radin said.

"We wanted less land, less driveway, less house, less lawn," said Radin, "and none of the houses had what we wanted. We wanted a ground-floor bedroom, since we aren't getting any younger, and that might come in handy."

Their move to Pittsfield wasn't driven by a desire to make a big profit on a South County property, he said, but by finding the ideal house.

"But I know there are people who will cash out," he said.

Sheila Thunfors, owner of Stone House Properties in West Stockbridge, said Pittsfield is now appealing more to vacation-home buyers: It's more centrally located for both North and South County's cultural attractions, and it's more affordable.

Thunfors said she handled a sale in July for a second-home buyer who paid $1.6 million for a house and 20 acres on Churchill Street in Pittsfield. The shopper had not found what he wanted in South County.

"And you definitely get more bang for your buck [in Pittsfield]," she said.

But for South County residents who wish to stay in the vicinity, it's a challenge, she said.

"It's increasingly difficult for South County homeowners to downsize and remain in the area," she said. "There was a time you could find a nice, one-level ranch where a South County person could move after retiring, but it's difficult now to find even a ranch house in Pittsfield. It's gotten quite tight there."


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