If you are a Wilton resident reading this, chances are you have at least one new neighbor on your block (or maybe you are the new neighbor, and if so, welcome!).
Wilton’s residential real estate market has been running at full throttle for over a year now, ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began sending a huge wave of singles, couples and families out of urban areas in a search for more room, a home office or remote learning space, and outdoor areas.
Access to transit and distance to work were no longer factors for many people, opening up more possibilities for where they might choose to live. Almost overnight, demand for homes in Wilton and many surrounding areas began to climb, along with demand for apartment rentals.
But what does it all mean for buyers and sellers (and renters) in Wilton today? And with some light finally appearing at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, how much longer can we expect this boom to continue?
For answers, GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to local real estate experts Dagny Eason, who leads a team of six real estate agents at her firm, Dagny’s Real Estate, and Jeff Kaplan, vice president of investment sales at TRUE Commercial Real Estate in Westport.
Prices Are Up (Way Up)
In the first quarter of 2020, Wilton’s median home price was about $650,000. Just one pandemic year later, that figure hit the $800,000 mark and is continuing to climb.
For Wilton homeowners who purchased before 2008, a longer-term context is important. Even with the dramatic recent gains, Eason points out that prices have still not returned to the heights of the 2006-2007 era, when the median price exceeded $900,000.
Wilton’s residential sales were actually on the upswing before COVID-19 hit. Eason said the first quarter of 2020 was “amazing”. Whether that would have continued without COVID is anyone’s guess, but at that time, there was some optimism about the market after a decade of sluggish activity that never amounted to a real post-2008 “recovery” in Wilton’s home prices.
Many Wilton homeowners and sellers are simply ecstatic to finally see gains in their home values. If they’re checking sites like Zillow, they’re seeing that Zestimate inch up almost daily.
Eason says today’s market conditions are even complicating matters for appraisers. What they might normally calculate to be a fair value can’t keep up with the rapidly increasing prices; 20 offers on a house would provide more empirical evidence on what the actual market value is.
… and Inventory is Down (Way Down)
One measure of the real estate market’s health is months of supply. In the two years before COVID, Connecticut had between 5.5 to 6 months of inventory available. By the end of the first quarter of 2021, that number had been slashed nearly in half.
Wilton’s available supply went from as many as 240 homes at times in 2018-2019 to about 150 in 2021.
Caution for Sellers
Homeowners who were discouraged from selling in the pre-COVID, buyers’ market may be tempted to take advantage of the current upswing in demand and lack of supply.
But Eason says realistic pricing is still important. Sellers who try to “shoot for the moon” on their listing price typically end up with an unsold home.
And while they’re generally astute on prices, today’s buyers want something turnkey. “The New Yorkers and everybody who’s coming in to look really want move-in condition. They want to know that they don’t have to replace the roof, they don’t have to replace the appliances, they can just move in and have everything gorgeous. Those are the houses that are really moving fast,” she said.
At the same time, Eason says, buyers are letting go of some of the demands they probably would have insisted upon a year ago. When buyers know a home has a dozen or more backup offers, they are “reticent” to ask a seller to remedy a problem discovered in their inspection, for example, and choose to address it themselves after the sale.
Will These Trends Continue?
While Eason quipped that her crystal ball broke in March of 2020, she believes the strong market conditions will continue for the foreseeable future, even looking out as far as a year or two.
One of the main reasons she cites is what she has observed with Wilton’s base of older (65+) homeowners. She explained their supply of homes, often desirable to younger families, has been largely untapped for the past year.
“A lot of the older people because of COVID have not put their houses on the market. They’re just now beginning to. They did not want a thousand buyers walking through their house [during COVID]. And they also didn’t know how to go about finding a place to move to if they were assisted living candidates [for example]. That’s one of the reasons why our inventory is so small. That whole group is not necessarily ready to do their normal transition to Florida, to assisted living, to a condo or downsizing. A lot of them are beginning to think about it, but that’s a whole huge segment of our market that has been very quiet for the past year.”
Adding to her optimism is the fact that work-from-home options, whether permanent or a few days per week, are expected to remain in place for many workers after the pandemic is over.
So You Sold Your House. Now What?
In previous years, a Wilton seller might have listed a home with the expectation that the process would take several weeks, if not months, allowing time for the seller to find another home or fall back on a rental for a period of transition. That now seems like a quaint vestige of yesteryear.
Consider the experience of one Wilton homeowner, who recently sold her spacious home on a desirable Wilton cul-de-sac. She wished to remain anonymous, but we’ll call her Donna.
Donna told GMW she and her husband “decided to jump on the real estate frenzy” in order to take advantage of the increased demand. Like many Wilton homeowners, they still felt the sting from their home value decline after the crash of 2008.
While they knew the market was hot, they were shocked at just how hot. Donna said, “It all happened a bit too quickly. The first person who walked through our house put an offer in at our asking price.” She added with some amazement, “Who does that?”
Donna realized they weren’t actually ready to move that quickly. “We ended up pulling it off the market, and when we were really ready we put it [back] on and accepted the first [new] offer.” (She noted that additional, higher offers subsequently came in.)
Still, they weren’t ready to leave Wilton. “We knew we didn’t want to leave the community just yet, even though we are [almost] empty nesters.”
Donna said that’s when the “horrifying” process of finding a Wilton rental began. There were [only] three houses on the market [for rent] at the time and only one was doable.” That one was scooped up by another renter while Donna was still inside looking at it.
Broadening their search outside of Wilton proved frustrating as well. “There were very limited rentals (homes and apartments) on the market, and I was panicking. I thought, what have we done?”
There was also some shock at the rental prices. Donna said even rentals in the $5,000-$6,000 (or more) dollars per month range were “dumps”. While she ultimately found a rental in Norwalk that they’re happy with, it’s far from ideal or what they imagined for this stage in their lives.
“My Heart Is So Broken”
Donna’s experience is not unusual. The squeeze on Wilton homes and apartments is forcing some residents out of town.
GMW reached out to another Wilton resident who had shared her real estate story in a private group on Facebook, desperately seeking advice for a difficult situation. (She also wished to remain anonymous for this story, as she is still trying to negotiate with her landlord. We’ll call her Jen.)
After a long-distance move, Jen and her family have been renting an apartment in Wilton since 2019. They signed a two-year lease to allow family members time to “settle in” and get ready to buy a home. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“My heart is so broken,” Jen wrote in the Facebook post as she described rocketing home prices and fierce buyer competition that defeated their attempts to buy a home for the past seven months.
Then came the rent increase on their apartment. The family learned that renewing their lease would mean another $1,000 per month. And with rental inventory disappearing even faster than homes, the family was really in a bind.
Like many Wilton residents, schools factor heavily in their decisions, and they don’t want to leave. She wrote, “I’m so sad because it feels like we just settled in… and now we have to look at different areas and start the whole search again.”
Her Facebook post was on April 3. Since then, she told GMW, the family has all but given up on their Wilton home search and has decided to relocate to another region. “Property prices escalated by so much that even homes that we could have afforded a year ago [are now] way beyond our reach.”
She added, “We wouldn’t have even considered moving to a different town or state if the real estate market wasn’t this crazy.”
Making The Case for More Development?
What has been happening on the residential side of real estate is almost diametrically opposed to the dynamics on the commercial side, notably for office and retail spaces.
“Those two areas of commercial [real estate] are getting crushed,” said Jeff Kaplan, vice president of sales at TRUE Commercial Real Estate in Westport. Kaplan is also a Wilton resident.
The one bright spot he sees in the commercial market is multifamily developments. “That is the residential aspect of commercial, and that is thriving. That’s where you’re going to see tremendous growth in Wilton and other towns like Wilton,” Kaplan predicted.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice agrees. She brought the subject to residents’ attention in a recent communication to the town, with what she called an “unprecedented” level of developer interest in building apartments in Wilton.
Indeed, numerous proposals are already on the table, including 2/24 Pimpewaug Rd. (162 units), 3 Hubbard Rd. (27 units in Wilton Center), 64 Danbury Rd. (116 units in the Wilton Corporate Park) and 141 Danbury Rd. (188 units at the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office).
When developers see such low levels of home and apartment inventory as they see right now, they’re eager to add supply. Factor in the attractiveness of Route 7/Danbury Rd. as a thoroughfare (which Kaplan calls Wilton’s “number one asset”) and the Connecticut affordable housing statute 8-30(g) (which makes it easier for developers to bypass local zoning restrictions), and you have all the elements for a development boom in multi-family housing.
Kaplan said the forces coming together at this particular time are like “the perfect 100-year storm.” As he sees it, the pendulum that historically swung toward “restrictive” or even “exclusionary” zoning regulations in Wilton favoring 1- and 2-acre, single-family homes now has the momentum moving toward more diverse and affordable housing options with greater density.
It’s not a one-sided push by developers. Wilton residents and town leaders are calling for it, too. Increasing Wilton’s supply of those more diverse and affordable housing options is a stated goal of Wilton’s Plan of Conservation and Development.
“Affordable housing” is a hot-button term, but Kaplan says it is often misunderstood by residents or confused with terms like “Section 8”.
“What the perception is around affordable [housing] is not reality. Affordable is not subsidized housing,” Kaplan said. He prefers the term “workforce housing.”
But what remains to be seen is how willing developers will be to consider Wilton’s current regulations and preferences for things like density, setbacks and building heights when they have the leverage of the 8-30(g) affordable housing statute behind them.
“I think there’s going to be a happy medium” between the developers’ and the town’s interests, Kaplan said. As an example, he cites a project the town approved at 300 Danbury Rd. (at the intersection of Ridgefield Rd.), which, for the most part, worked within Wilton’s existing zoning regulations. While the shovel-ready project faced uncertainty during the pandemic, Kaplan says there is renewed interest in proceeding forward. Of note, it does not include any affordable housing units.
Is it all too much, too fast, for Wilton? No, says Kaplan, because he does not expect every proposal will come to fruition, and because developers will anticipate the level of demand before a glut of vacant apartments results. Right now, the market is teeming with demand.
Other than Wilton Commons, the affordable senior housing development on Station Rd. built in 2013, Kaplan says there has been no significant multi-family development in Wilton Center since the Avalon community was built over 20 years ago.
Currently, the Avalon complex has only two two-bedroom units available, one priced at roughly $4,300 per month and the other, slightly larger one priced at nearly $4,800 per month. Neither is actually available until the end of July.
White Oaks at Wilton (formerly owned by Avalon), the 100-unit complex at 116 Danbury Rd., also shows no availability except for one two-bedroom unit available in July.
As the two homeowners mentioned earlier in this story demonstrate, the loss right now is Wilton’s. Kaplan said, “All that money is shifting out of Wilton because we don’t have the options.”
A great way to keep up with Wilton’s real estate market is GMW‘s weekly Real Estate Report, which includes all of the residential and commercial property transfers for the previous week, along with photos and closing prices. Look for it on Mondays in our Real Estate and Business section of our website or subscribe to our free daily newsletter.