Neighborhoods that Play Hard to Get
Richmond Hill, in southwestern Queens, can be an eye-opener for the uninitiated home buyer. Neck rolls may even be in order. They’ll help with the double take: Victorian houses with verandas and grassy lawns a few blocks from the subway; locals gallivanting on horseback in Forest Park; street parking on a Saturday.
Perhaps the most unusual sight in this tree-lined neighborhood: a for-sale sign.
“I really lucked out,” said Ernest Gutierrez, 39, who, with his wife, Jennifer Deeb, 41, bought a seven-bedroom Victorian house in the area for $780,000 last year — in an off-market deal.
Mr. Gutierrez, a finance director for a media company who already owned a house two blocks away, got wind of the listing about a month before it was to hit the market for $800,000. He and Ms. Deeb met the sellers, whose family had lived in the house since 1961, and made the first and only offer entertained, promising to keep the house’s historic character intact, and to someday pass it on to their three children. The sellers accepted the next day, despite the prospect of getting more on the open market, and the buyers became only the third owners in the house’s 110-year history.
Such is the art of the deal in some of New York’s most impenetrable markets, where new inventory is tight, homeowners seldom sell and word of mouth is gold. Across the city, in mostly blue-collar neighborhoods, farther out than many Manhattanites are used to treading, demand is on the rise, but hardly anyone leaves. House hunters may find architectural gems or money-pit makeovers, or nothing at all in these inventory-starved markets. Still, the lure of reasonably priced homes in tight-knit communities has buyers itching to get in.
To find the most difficult neighborhoods to crack, we asked the real estate website StreetEasy to analyze residential sales turnover in New York Citysince 2010, based on city Department of Finance records. StreetEasy excluded the borough of Staten Island, because it had insufficient data. We used neighborhood boundaries as defined on StreetEasy’s website. The data included repeat sales of the same properties between 2010 and mid-2017.
Richmond Hill, where Mr. Gutierrez and Ms. Deeb have settled, had 9 percent turnover; the neighborhood’s southern section barely registered above zero, the lowest in the city. Bushwick had 3 percent turnover, the slowest in Brooklyn. Melrose, in the Bronx, had just under 2 percent. In Manhattan, the neighborhoods least likely to display a for-sale sign were Marble Hill, with 5 percent turnover, followed by Chinatown, with 9 percent.
By contrast, the neighborhood with the most sales activity was Downtown Brooklyn, where 51 percent of residential inventory sold. The turnover rate in the four boroughs overall was 15 percent in that period.
Grant Long, the senior economist at StreetEasy, said the surge in Downtown Brooklyn was likely caused by a wave of condo construction in the area.
Prices in many of the low-turnover neighborhoods are climbing, spurred by lack of inventory. That’s part of the problem, said the real estate appraiser Jonathan J. Miller.
“It’s money on paper,” he said. “Because, where are you going to go?” Higher prices across the city, he said, encourage longtime owners to stay put.
For buyers trying to break into these neighborhoods, browsing online listings may not get you anywhere. Many of these properties are not formally listed, while others are shopped around quietly before making a public debut. Sometimes, you just have to know “the guy” — the broker in the neighborhood, who may or may not be a guy, whom everyone trusts.
“I don’t need signage,” said Joseph Milone, the owner of Joseph Milone Realty, who relies on word of mouth, and eager buyers, to sell homes in Morris Park, the Bronx, where he has lived since 1979.
“If I put a house on the market, it will not take two weeks to get it done. There’s nothing available,” he said. Morris Park has had 6 percent turnover since 2010, with just 26 sales last year.
Dan Scaglione, 51, an owner of Scaglione Brothers’ Bakery & Deli on Morris Park Avenue, became a part-time salesman with the Pantiga Group realty three years ago, because patrons kept asking him for real estate leads. “Sellers just tell their friends and neighbors,” he said. “If you don’t know the neighborhood, you won’t see the listings.”
Advertising is not his problem. “A couple months ago,” he said, “I put a sign up, I walked back a block and a half to my business, and I had three calls already.”
The neighborhood, about an hour’s subway ride from Midtown, has a bustling Little Italy, and has attracted a large Albanian population, as well as Hispanic and Chinese buyers. It’s appealing to first-time buyers, who spent a median $485,000 on a home here last quarter, according to StreetEasy. That’s up almost 13 percent from last year, but still a relative steal in a community filled with spacious brick rowhouses.
Erik Caiola, 36, and his wife, Carly, 35, bought one of those rowhouses, a two-family with a backyard, for $579,500 in April.
“We’re the youngest on the block by a good 20 years,” said Mr. Caiola, who works in commercial development. Ms. Caiola is a nursery school administrator. They bought the house from the late owner’s adult children, whose family bought the house in the 1980s.
The couple, who had been renting in Ditmas Park and other parts of Brooklyn for 12 years, had decided they needed to find space for both their second child and Ms. Caiola’s mother, who helps with child care. After scouring the Bronx for family-friendly neighborhoods, they homed in on Morris Park.
They first tried to buy a large three-family house; it was listed for only a week, and they were outbid, Mr. Caiola said. The house they ultimately bought had been lingering on the market for a few months, in part because of the dated interior, he said, with shag carpet, glossy finishes and a small kitchen. But it was nevertheless a find, and they put in an offer the same day they saw it.
“If this one wasn’t available, there’s no doubt we’d still be looking,” he said.
Renovations are underway, with Mr. Caiola gutting the kitchen and replacing 1970s design faux pas. Next up: getting to know the neighbors.
“There’s a cafe we go to, where it’s all old Italians sipping espressos,” he said. It’s a joy for Mr. Caiola’s father, a second-generation Italian-American with roots in Calabria, who chats up locals on the block when he visits.
On the other hand, Mr. Caiola said, “there’s very little anonymity,” which took some getting used to after living in Brooklyn rentals. “If you’re new to the neighborhood, they’ve just got their eye on you. People actually say ‘hi’ to you.”
As climbing prices push home buyers farther from the city core, some are finding hidden gems — and unexpected competition.
“Sunset Park, it wasn’t on our map,” said Thomas Allen, 37, a private investigator, of the Brooklyn neighborhood south of trendier precincts like Park Slope. The turnover rate in Sunset Park is 8 percent, according to StreetEasy’s analysis.
Mr. Allen and his wife, Jennifer Jancuska, the resident choreographer for the Broadway show “Hamilton,” had been renting in Park Slope for 12 years when their landlord sold to a developer early this year, and told them they had to move.
With the help of Jay Molishever, an associate broker at Citi Habitats, they found a new listing for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in a low-rise co-op, right on Sunset Park, for $550,000.
“I knew this was home, before we even saw the whole place,” said Ms. Jancuska, who was impressed by the bustle of activity in the park — neighbors practicing tai chi, couples dancing to Chinese pop and folk songs, early-morning soccer games. Other buyers felt the same — there were already three above-asking-price bids.
“The list time is getting shorter and shorter,” said Peter Bracichowicz, an associate broker at the Corcoran Group, who represented the sellers, an older Polish couple moving upstate.
Mr. Allen said they “put everything, and then some” down to seal the deal, outbidding the other buyers. Only two other units sold in the 69-unit building this year, and the next most recent sale was in 2012, according to StreetEasy.
For their effort, they got a 750-square-foot prewar apartment with vistas of the park. They join a building with about 20 children under 10, he said. The residents of the building, originally a Finnish co-op, still abide by the tradition of talkoot, a community exercise in which everyone works on beautification and maintenance projects.
“It’s a magical place,” Mr. Allen said, reflecting on an impromptu Monday concert in the courtyard, with a standup bass, trombone and drum set.
“It’s so much more diverse,” said Caroline Bailey, 49, a copywriter who bought in a nearby co-op in March, after renting in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where she said, “we had diversity, but it was all white people from different countries — like France.”
In her new building, the board meetings are conducted in both Chinese and English. “There’s a lot of waving, and gesturing, and smiling, too,” she said. She estimates that about 80 percent of the owners in her 36-unit co-op are of Chinese descent, plus a mix of Latinos and South Asians. That echoes the neighborhood’s two main streets, Eighth Avenue, a hub for Chinese immigrants mostly hailing from Fujian province, and Fifth Avenue, with many storefronts bearing signs in Spanish.
Securing a new home in low-turnover neighborhoods can take more than getting there first or waving a big wad of cash.
In Richmond Hill, some residents are appalled by new owners who destroy historic elements of the mostly Victorian-style houses. In their case, Mr. Gutierrez and Ms. Deeb appealed to the seller’s love for the house. The couple vowed to keep the house intact, including stained-glass windows, original oak and maple floors and dentil molding. They hope their children, Chloe, 16, Amelia, 12, and 8-month-old Elliot, will take up the mantle one day.
It didn’t hurt that their agent, Regina Schaefer Santoro, an associate broker at Parkside Realty and a longtime resident, got Mr. Gutierrez in to see the house before it hit the market. Ms. Santoro is a friend of the seller, she said.
To buy their new home, Mr. Gutierrez and Ms. Deeb had to sell their old Richmond Hill house. The buyers: Aaron and Alexandra Leeder, former renters in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
“They wanted somebody who cared about the house,” said Mr. Leeder, 34, who works for TwentyPine, a job recruitment firm. Ms. Leeder, 32, is a preschool teacher who now cares for their daughter, 7-month-old Vivienne. They bought the Gutierrez-Deeb home, a 1920s detached three-bedroom, for $580,000 last year, in a deal arranged by Ms. Santoro.
Mr. Gutierrez said there was another offer on the table that was slightly higher. One of the deciding factors, he said, was a heartfelt letter from Ms. Leeder, about how she had grown up in nearby Forest Hills, and how she’d like to raise a family in the area.
“It was kind of a nice passing of the baton,” Mr. Leeder said.
Featured image courtesy of Christopher Gregory