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Hot Properties: What you can get for the money — and where

Western New York is like “a big secret." At least that’s how Christie Rothschild, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors sees it. She joked, “We should do more PR on what a great place it is to live.”

Well, the “secret” is starting to get out. In the last year, Forbes magazine put Buffalo at the top of its list for most affordable cities and Kiplinger touted the Queen City as a leader in real estate appreciation. The Western New York area — which never experienced the boom or bust of the real estate market like other areas – remains stable. And buyers are noticing. Real estate agents say inventory is low, demand is high, and the Western New York market is hot, especially in the city.

“The rest of the country is not seeing that stability like we are,” Rothschild said. “The way I see it, Buffalo’s a vintage city with youthful dreams. And finally, those dreams are coming to fruition.”

With that resurgence comes a competitive market in the city and surrounding suburbs. Peter Scarcello, the Buffalo Niagara manager for Hunt Real Estate, said inventory is down “around 20 percent,” which echoes national trends. Rothschild said it’s not unusual to see between eight to 10 offers on one home, especially those priced below $200,000.

Susan Lenahan, a licensed real estate broker for M.J. Peterson, sees the competition to snag a home as well, especially in the Elmwood Village with its beautiful old houses and markets, stores and galleries.

“Everyone wants to live there,” Lenahan said. “It’s all about walkability.”

That’s one of the main trends local real estate agents say they’re noticing: people want to live where they can walk among shops, restaurants and other businesses. Miriam Treger, an agent and manager at RealtyUSA, says in addition to using “walkability gauges,” buyers also are seeking out areas with easy access to green space and parks.

Elmwood is experiencing “tremendous” appreciation, Scarcello said, and with that, the market is moving west, beyond Richmond Avenue.

That appreciation is citywide and beyond. Elmwood’s popularity has resulted in a steady increase in the cost of homes there — in the last year, the average price per square foot has gone up about 27 percent, according to Scarcello.

All walkable areas — like the village of East Aurora, which also has seen price increases, plus Williamsville and Orchard Park — are attracting buyers, Lenahan said. People have also been seeking out North Buffalo’s Hertel Avenue, another walkable neighborhood, that is home to the renovated North Park Theatre and a mix of restaurants, coffee shops and an influx of strong retail stores. It helps that the city’s taxes are the lowest in Western New York.

A home in Buffalo comparable to one in Amherst could incur $4,000 less in property taxes per year, said Lenahan.

Scarcello promotes properties in walkable neighborhoods to buyers, too, as villages’ developing business districts drive up neighboring property values, which he’s seen happen on Hertel Avenue, Elmwood Avenue and in the village of East Aurora.

Good values

For those on a modest budget looking in the Northtowns, especially first-time buyers in the $100,000-130,000 range, real estate agents recommend the Kenmore-Tonawanda area. Rothschild says the area offers “a lot for the money,” similar to West Seneca, Hamburg and Cheektowaga.

Of course, the buyer should beware — particularly of taxes. While some areas like Cheektowaga may offer more affordable housing, buyers also face higher taxes than in comparable areas because of the town’s school tax — high because of its multiple school districts. (See sidebar story, “What will $200K get you?” for an example.)e

Real estate agents agree that school districts are a huge driving force behind where buyers are going to look for homes, and contribute significantly to making areas like Clarence — Treger’s top-value location pick — so popular.

Treger said that Clarence also has “forward-thinking” development projects, like Spaulding Green, which includes different types of homes like condominiums, patio and single-family floor plans.

Similar developments are popping up in Lancaster, which Rothschild says is one of the “hottest” places to live outside of the City of Buffalo right now. Treger described the area as a “wonderful blend of North and Southtowns” with room to build, making it the next up-and-coming area due to the availability of homes and its expected growth. Homebuyers also like the area’s school district and history, such as the village’s 117-year-old opera house which still hosts performances.

Worth the drive?

Lancaster also makes commuting easy due its proximity to Route 33, but those who don’t mind living away from highways may reap some fiscal rewards.

“If somebody wants to drive, they will get a better deal,” Lenahan said. Rothschild added that in towns like Evans, Colden and Eden, buyers will get more house for less money than they would in the city – the price differences from comparable properties could be as much as $100,000. But those areas are more secluded and buyers are giving up walkability and the conveniences that come with living closer to Buffalo’s urban center.

What about renting? Realtors are quick to encourage buying over renting — even with the popularity of lofts and other rentals downtown. For empty nesters seeking to simplify, Scarcello recommends condominiums in order to retain equity. But what about a new home or a fixer-upper? It seems that most first-time buyers already have their minds made up.

Rothschild has seen a “new breed” of buyers in the last five years — she calls them “fussy buyers” — who don’t want a home in need of repairs. And on the opposite end, more investors are flipping houses in the city and suburbs for those who don’t want to do the work themselves.

Regardless of the kind of home you’re seeking, Rothschild recommends making an appointment to see a home you like as soon as you can.

“I’ve never seen the market like this before,” Lenahan said. ”It is incredibly strong. There’s a renaissance like we haven’t seen in Buffalo in 75 years.”

A tale of two villages

The numbers tell the story in two local walkable communities: the Elmwood Village in Buffalo and the village of East Aurora. (Numbers and analysis courtesy of Peter Scarcello of Hunt Real Estate.)

Elmwood Village

Average sale price per square foot

  • 2012: $92.93
  • 2013: $110.35 (18.75% increase yr/yr)
  • 2014: $140.03 (26.9% increase yr/yr through 5/28/2014)

The Elmwood Strip is more popular than ever. As inventory remains low, property values will continue to escalate. The strong business district will reinforce stable-to-increasing property values.

Village of East Aurora

Average sale price per square foot:

  • 2012- $104.87
  • 2013- $116.52 (11% increase yr/yr)
  • 2014- $120.82 (3.7% increase yr/yr)

Again, a strong business district will lead to stable/increasing residential property values.

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