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Real estate market seen to improve, but only slightly

Local experts said the area’s real estate market was steady or slightly improved in 2012 and a change in buyers attitudes has them feeling positive about growth in the new year.

“It’s been bleak for so long that even the tiniest spark can look like a beacon,” said Northampton realtor Patrick M. Goggins, referring to the years since the bottom dropped out of the real estate market in 2007.

“I think in 2012 we’ve seen a modest improvement in the residential market and I think there is some indication that the same thing is happening for commercial real estate,” he said. “I think people are starting to feel a little better about the impact of the economic malaise.”

Real estate brokers pointed to a few good signs, ranging from some single-family homes selling at more than their asking price to commercial buildings popping up around the region, as indications that the market is starting to look more favorable, though they stopped short of calling it a true about-face.

“There’s not a lot of oomph behind the market,” said John Williamson, of Springfield-based Williamson Commercial Properties. He said the 2012 commercial market was “more of the same” compared to 2011, but he also sees more confidence in the market.

“I’ve been in the business long enough to sense when there’s a little bit of momentum going on, and we’re already experiencing that in the first quarter of 2013,” he said. “There’s just a general attitude that things are finally starting to get better after bad years.”

Residential market improves

David Murphy of The Murphys Realtors of Northampton points to what he sees as evidence that buyers feel more confidence. He cites as an indication that the residential real estate market has “turned a corner” the facts that numerous Northampton houses on the market in 2012 received multiple offers before selling and 22 sold for more than their asking prices, he said.

“We’re not back to the levels of 2005-06, but values have leveled off and are starting to go the other way,” Murphy said. “We got clobbered in 2008 and ’09 and are still rebuilding. We were in the doldrums in ’09 and ’10. It’s nice to see growth. To see it continue in ’13 would be reassuring.”

The Realtor Association of Pioneer Valley said that single-family home sales in Hampshire County rose 13.5 percent from 909 in 2011 to 1,032 in 2012, while the median sales price dropped 2 percent from $245,000 to $239,900. In Franklin County, home sales increased 16 percent and the median sales price was down half of a percent. The average number of days a Pioneer Valley home was on the market stayed the same at 138 days, according to the Realtor Association’s 2012 review.

Houses costing between $600,000 and $800,000 are starting to sell again after years of very little interest, said Linda Rotti, sales manager of Jones Group Realtors in Amherst. “We had a spec house listed, which wouldn’t happen in a bad market,” she said.

She said both sellers and buyers are now more savvy about home prices. Sellers are asking realtors to compare their homes to other properties and recommend listing prices, she said, and buyers are using the internet to see if sales prices are reasonable.

“Many people have tried to sell at higher prices and had to reduce them,” Rotti said. “Buyers are not going to pay more than what something is worth.”

Commercial development

In terms of the commercial market, some sellers said there is also a slight uptick. “You don’t have to look any farther than King Street” in Northampton, Goggins said.

Among the projects that are underway on King Street include the development of two Cosenzi Automotive Group car dealerships at the site of the former Kollmorgen building at 347 King St., a new Lia Kia car dealership at 263 King St. and a PeoplesBank branch at the corner of King and Barrett streets.

Colvest/Northampton LLC is renovating the long-vacant former supermarket at 327 King St. into office space and has plans to build a free-standing Greenfield Savings Bank.

Further down the street, Goggins plans to redevelop a 1-acre property at 79 King St. by demolishing the current Bank of America and constructing a new bank closer to the street and a combination office and apartment building.

“A lot of it is due to improvements in the economy, some of it is due to improving zoning and some of it is just coincidental,” he said of the activity. The city in fall 2011 adopted new zoning for the area, relaxing requirements on parking, setbacks and building positions on lots.

Development continues on the 126-acre Village Hill property off Route 66 in Northampton, including single-family homes that have been selling rapidly for the last few years, according to Goggins.

Commercial projects there that got city approval last year include an $8.6 million, 83-unit assisted living facility, to be built by the Boston-based Grantham Group, and a two-story, 16,300-square-foot commercial building.

The city also OK’d plans by Hotel Northampton owner Mansour Ghalibaf to build a $10 million Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott hotel on a 2.3-acre Conz Street property adjacent to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Williamson said that two professional centers on Atwood Drive, one of which was finished in 2012, are examples of the improved market for office space in Northampton. The completed building is 100 percent occupied and the one still under construction is 75 percent spoken for, he said.

Williamson, who is selling a parcel of land on the corner of East Street and Route 9 in Hadley, called that town’s main thoroughfare a “vibrant corridor.”

“The traffic there is phenomenal, and it seems to continue to attract new business and development,” he said.

Among the new businesses along the road are a new Firestone Complete Auto Care Center and a Chipotle Mexican Grill, both located in front of Home Depot, and Pet Hotel Hadley, a pet care business at 155 Russell St.

Easthampton is another community that is seeing some steady commercial development, he said, due partly to its available space in former mill buildings. “There isn’t a huge supply of available mill space that’s priced in a way that start-ups can go in and still control their overhead, and Easthampton and Holyoke have that,” he said.

Easthampton City Planner Jessica Allan said that though the former mill buildings on Pleasant Street are only partially filled by artists, manufacturers and other tenants, they will hopefully reach 100 percent occupancy when a public-private project to increase parking and accessibility to the buildings is completed in the coming years.

The city’s downtown nightlife swelled in 2012 with three new bars, the Art Bar Cafe, the Hideaway and Luthier’s Co-op, and two restaurants, Glory of India and the Lobby at Popcorn Noir. Apollo Grill owner John Casey Douglass bought the building at 60 Main St. to open an upscale restaurant this spring.

Two new breweries also began construction in Easthampton last year. Fort Hill Brewery broke ground near East Street in November and High & Mighty Beer Co., which currently bottles beer in Holyoke, is scheduled to start brewing in its own space in Mill 180 on Pleasant Street this spring.

In Amherst, Planning Director Jonathan Tucker said a housing shortage is driving some new development. He said the evidence is the 100-person waiting list for Boltwood Place, a $4 million mixed-use high-rise under construction off of North Pleasant Street. Its 11 apartments are expected to be habitable in the fall.

“There is a great deal of pent-up demand for small to medium-sized dwelling units in or near the downtown or our outlying village centers,” Tucker said.

He said that while there was not a lot of commercial development in Amherst in 2012, there was a higher than usual amount of planning for it.”

One project that is before the Zoning Board of Appeals is a proposal to expand Presidential Apartments complex at 950 North Pleasant St. Toby Cohn Family Investments, which owns the 85-unit complex, is seeking a special permit to build 54 new apartments.

In the downtown, the former Silverscape Designs building at 264 North Pleasant St. was purchased for $717,500 by Dr. Robert Weitzman, who plans to move Amherst Laser & Skin Care Center to the space this spring.

New businesses bringing diversity to the downtown are the Amherst Dog Wash, a do-it-yourself dog washing facility at 321 Main St., and the Glazed Doughnut Shop, a gourmet doughnut bakery in The Carriage Shops. The Amherst Survival Center also completed and moved into the $1.55 million building it constructed at 138 Sunderland Road in 2012.

Material from a Jan. 17, 2013 article by former Gazette reporter Nick Grabbe was incorporated into this story.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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