Saturday, December 30, 2017

Chairman's View: With Compliments and Thanks

By John Engel
Town Council Chairman
Christmas is behind us. Before the New Year’s excitement I’ll take this opportunity to thank some volunteers.
To Bill Walbert and John Sheffield, departing chairmen of the Town Council and Board of Finance. Neither asked for the job of chairman. John is a fiscal conservative: voted against an appropriation for land acquisition, an increase in the treasurer’s salary, and in the tax collection rate. It’s hard to say no, but you were tough. We will consider ourselves privileged to have a similarly involved leader in our next Board of Finance chair. Bill Walbert managed to lead the Town Council without ever saying a cross word. He told me the best part of the chairman’s job was thanking the incredible volunteers who serve this town everyday. Bill inspired this column.
The New Canaan Library
To Bob Butman and his Library board, the greatest example we have of a public-private partnership: The town pays only a fraction of your budget, far less than surrounding towns, and we recognize how deficient your current space is. We’ll ask you to build us a spectacular new library and tell us how you’ll pay for most of it privately (please!). All of New Canaan needs you to succeed. What you propose will last for generations.
The Waveny Park Conservancy
Thank you Bob Seelert and the Conservancy Board for exceeding all expectations in the 50th year of the Lapham gift, polishing the jewel of New Canaan. Trails are done, the cornfield is being renovated, gardens are planned, and restoration of the pond is a certainty after an outstanding gala earlier this month. Bravo.
The New Canaan Land Trust
To Art Berry and the Land Trust Board: Thank you for adding not just six acres in Fowler purchase but a vital public park in a neighborhood that had none. Thank you for linking the Nature Center to Irwin Park, pushing for a Land Acquisition Fund, and making us more appreciative of open space.
The Historical Society

To Mark Markiewicz and the other Historical Society board members working overtime to move beyond your revolutionary roots: Besides the Ice Cream Social, “House of Cars”, “Waveny, Then and Now”, “Art America,” and “New Canaan Modern Architects” in the Carriage Barn, you’re planning an art show on Orientalism, a belly-dancing performance, the Mad for Moderns gala, and the bi-annual Modern house Day Tour (Oct. 20, 2018). There’s a reason to go to 13 Oenoke besides the Advertiser Coffee.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"New Canaan Made Plain" (my column for the New Canaan Advertiser)

This column is making good on a promise of transparency. As your bow-tie wearing Town Council Chairman, rarely accused of being shy, it’s my charge to let people know what is going on in New Canaan.

Bankwell is quitting the residential mortgage business. Based on Bankwell’s tremendous history and visibility here in New Canaan (sponsoring just about every non-profit event in town) this is a shock. It reflects how competitive the residential mortgage business has become. It’s a funny time to leave the business, just as rates are about to tick up and the business could become more profitable.

The Town Council confirmed Board of Finance nominees: Colleen Baldwin returns; Todd Lavieri is new. When the BOF issued their guidance last month setting a cap of 2% on all budgets and the First Selectman reaffirmed that guidance we set the expectation for a tough budget season.

Town Council announced subcommittees last night. We had huge interest in the Infrastructure and Utilities Subcommittee where we will review potential cell tower sites on town properties (note new cell tower P&Z regulations are in draft for private properties), the roll out of gas service and the newly released Buildings Committee recommendations. Penny Young and Cristina Ross chair our subcommittee with Sven Englund, Joe Palladino, Tom Butterworth and Liz Donovan. New Canaan signaled low appetite for school and park sites. Private cell sites may now emerge.

The Town Council is beginning a new tradition: start each meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance led by local Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts. Good for the scouts, doubly good for the adults. We will stand.

People keep asking me what is happening in our real estate market and how will it affect our budget. As of December 1 the number of single-family home sales is up 36%. The median sale price is exactly $1.5 million. Sales below $1.5mm are up 41% while sales above $1.5mm are up 32%. The bottom half took off early this year, sales under $1mm were up 147% in October. Now, we see strength at the higher end as confidence moves up-market. Four sales this year over $5 million with another 2 sales pending is a good sign for the New Canaan market.

All 4 performances of the NEAD Nutcracker sold out last (snowy) weekend, 3000 tickets, the first ever with a live orchestra. Bravo. There’s one (charity) show this Saturday.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

November Market Report for New Canaan and Fairfield County

We are having a very good Fall market here in New Canaan, not just in comparison to 2016. This chart makes it apparent that 2014 and 2015 were exceptional years and that 13 sales is more typical.

This chart of cumulative house and condo sales over the last ten years is a more sobering view. 216 single family house sales and 43 condo sales is fairly typical and last year was particularly poor here.

279 Active House listings is too many. This number has doubled from 145 back in 2000 and about 220 in 2013. The number of people in New Canaan has remained unchanged in the last 20 years so why has the number of active listings doubled? A good deal of this has to do with the financial and tax situation in Connecticut. There are many more opportunistic sellers than there were 10 years ago.

The number that jumps out on this chart is the number of closings under $1 million, up 147% year over year.  There is always a buyer for a relatively inexpensive home in this market, given the high quality schools and low taxes. So why did that number jump this year? One factor could be the relatively low number of inexpensive rentals on the market. When faced with limited options to rent many people opted to purchase instead. A second factor is the increase in inventory. Given the record levels of inventory, and the relative stability of prices and low interest rates, buyers did respond.

There is still 6 years of inventory above $5 million. This has to come back into balance. The number of active listings under $1 million is only 41 which makes it unlikely that we can sustain the current level of sales of 52. In the $1-2 million category we have about 1 year of inventory and that is a balanced market. 

Ah, condominiums. The condo market follows the housing market. When houses are selling then it produces buyers for our condo market. As we can see in the chart above there are sales at all levels in the condo market, and the current level of about 4 condo sales per month is consistent with condo performance over the last ten years. We expect that the increased volume in the housing market will result in higher median prices in the condo market.

What's wrong with Greenwich? Nothing. A 5% drop in volume is statistically insignificant because they had a relatively strong year last year. Prices are now $300,000 higher than New Canaan and Darien and this could account for the drop in volume. As I recall the prices were much tighter between the three towns a year ago. What is significant are the large increases in volume in 4 markets and small increases in volume in another 5 markets.

Inventory keeps climbing. While it is true that we're having a brief respite after hitting new records again in 2016, inventory levels are still much too high and reflect a whole generation of opportunistic sellers. Rather than settle into a home for 20 years people are much more willing to regard their primary home as an investment (and take a profit when it is presented).

This chart shows the seasonality of the number of listings is still a factor, with the peak number of listings in June before all of the pending Spring transactions have cleared.

The volatility in the November December months comes from houses coming off of inventory for the Christmas holidays. 

The absorption rate dives between November and January as people take a break from the market and pull their houses off with the expectation of re-listing in February or March. By May everything is back on the market and the number of sales outpaces the addition of new listings.

Ninety five percent is typical for the ratio between listing prices and selling prices. We have found that buyers will not typically make credible opening offers below 90% of asking price and prices tend to settle at the mid-point of the bid and the ask, 95%  What is far more instructive is the ratio to original list price which is consistently below 90% for the first time in recent memory.

Monday, November 6, 2017

New Canaan Advertiser Endorsement for Town Council 2017 Endorsements for Town Council 2017

Seven candidates—four Republicans and three Democrats—are vying for six Town Council seats that are up for election on Tuesday.
For reasons listed below, I am endorsing three Republicans—John Engel, Rich Townsend and Tom Butterworth—and three Democrats—Sven Englund, Colm Dobbyn and Liz Donovan.
Two candidates, incumbents Engel and Englund, most clearly have earned re-election to the legislative body.
Engel is an insightful, articulate councilman who brings a singular perspective as a lifelong resident, community volunteer, open space advocate, parent and Realtor. His also is a common-sense voice in a body that can be derailed by overreach and politicking. During a tortured December 2014 session, for example, he was one of just two Republicans to vote in favor of listing Waveny on the National Register of Historic Places. The Council’s narrow vote saw the yet-to-be-created Waveny Park Conservancy written into a resolution for the first time.
Englund, another New Canaan lifer who has served 40 years in the New Canaan Fire Company, is in some ways the conscience of the Town Council. In the same 2014 meeting, he rightly asserted that Waveny as a gem of the town has earned the national designation then up for consideration. As the Town Council considered a proposal that would’ve seen the former Outback Teen Center building used to house a day program for local adults with developmental disabilities, Englund asked out loud just what councilmen were doing if not trying to help those in town who need it most. For the last two years, he far and away has had the best attendance record among Democrats serving on the Town Council, and diligently attends subcommittee assignment meetings—not all do—reporting back to the full body.
The next Town Council candidate most deserving of New Canaanites’ votes is Dobbyn. He has served for more than one decade on what is known today as the Inland Wetlands Commission, an important government body that exists in relative obscurity as it is dramatically under-covered by local media. An attorney on the commission, he diligently looks out for New Canaan’s best interests. For example, in early-2016, as the commission contemplated publishing a “Do’s and Don’ts” brochure on environmental regulations, Dobbyn cautioned that New Canaan could face a liability issue if it published a document too specific to the violating landscaper who had inspired it.
Committed to town and active in community discussions, Butterworth also deserves a seat on the Town Council. Like fellow GOP hopefuls, he had been under-prepared during an initial Republican Town Committee debate over the summer to answer basic questions that spoke to the workings of the Council. Yet Butterworth, a retired businessman, improved to a point where last month, during a discussion of town-owned buildings at the League of Women Voters’ Candidates Forum, he was the only candidate for Town Council in either party who cited, astutely, a recent finding that 20 percent of those municipal structures are vacant. “I don’t think we have a right to maintain” that vacancy rate, Butterworth said. He’s right.
Rich Townsend by a wide margin (and following a well-executed social media campaign that has continued into the fall) earned the most votes of any Republican at the party’s July caucus. A local businessman, Townsend served on the Charter Revision Commission and has run on a platform of protecting New Canaan’s property values. His friendly, civil demeanor will be an immediate plus on the Town Council—he would be a strong candidate for chairman. And his vow to approach the budget process with an eye on 5 percent reductions—though unlikely, given contracted wage increases—captures a fresh perspective on town spending that New Canaan must embrace. He should be voted onto the Town Council.
The sixth and final Town Council vote should go to Liz Donovan, a Princeton-educated entrepreneur from a prominent local family who has dedicated her free time to community service. Specifically, she left a successful corporate career to launch a business that helps seniors safely “age in place.” Returned to her hometown of New Canaan three years ago to help care for her own elderly mother, Donovan will bring a fresh perspective and sunny outlook to the Town Council, a legislative body that benefits from new blood.
The odd candidate out this year would be Penny Young, a widely respected community volunteer whose resume of civic accomplishments, compiled over two decades, would rival anyone’s. Young possesses deep institutional knowledge and New Canaan would be lucky to avail itself of her expertise in some way. Yet members of the Town Council, the single most-powerful body in New Canaan, must operate with transparency in order to represent the electorate most fully. Young was the low vote-getter among Republican candidates for Town Council in 2013, and though she is a shrewd politician who will land on a ballot this year alongside massively popular Engel and Townsend, she should not be sent back to the legislative body.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Reelect John to another term on Town Council

October 3, 2017

Dear Editor,

I would like to strongly endorse John Engel for reelection to the Town Council.  As a parent raising a fourth generation of New Canaanites, a homeowner, a commercial property landlord, and a realtor, John is “all-in” for New Canaan.  John is always around town and enjoys little more than talking with people about the issues that are of importance to them.  He then carries those views into the Town policy making process to help make sure that the different perspectives are heard.  While very polite and civil, he is not afraid to challenge the consensus in order to get to an even better outcome.  He is especially focused on showing both current and potential residents that the Town balances its budgets and actively works to keep taxes low.

Please join me in helping to reelect John to another term on Town Council.

Scott Hobbs

President, Hobbs Inc.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Op-Ed: More funds for fields good for taxpayers

September 28, 2017

Dear Editor, New Canaan Advertiser,

Last night I voted to add $800,000 to the Fields appropriation. I did not take this decision lightly. I spent 100 hours discussing with over 20 members of various town committees, taxpayers and employees of the town and school system before coming to the conclusion that finishing the fields with turf, seating, storage and lights was a good business decision for taxpayers. Here are my top ten reasons for supporting full funding of the Enterprise Zone in turf with lights and seating:
1. They're paying it back. The Fields Committee revealed a business plan which conservatively puts $150,000 per year back into the community, one third of which is projected to go into a sinking fund to lower future town re-turfing obligations. 
2. It attracts tourism to downtown stores and restaurants. Estimates of 1000-2000 visiting families to sports camps and tournaments per summer, especially during economically challenging August, helps our economy. 
3. It will improve property values. This high-profile asset speaks directly to the needs of young families buying homes in this area and is accretive to the value of all 7,000 homes. 
4. This facility is used by whole town. Over 80% of the use of the track is by non-students. The 4 turf fields are used by 5 sports year-round. 
5. A vote to stand behind the project (instead of punishing the project) restores private fundraising momentum, encouraging private donations to the NCAF, NCCF and New Canaan Baseball for further improvement of this and other town facilities. 
6. Turf extends the Fall and Spring playing seasons by at least two months per year, eliminating rainouts and taking pressure off Saxe and Waveny grass fields. 
7. Lights extend the playing season & allows practice to occur after sunset when a lot of dads can get off work and volunteer. With Dunning we have seen a direct correlation between football's ability to extend their practice season at all grade levels and the overall success of NC Football program. 
8. Over 2000 New Canaan families participate in sports on these fields and are directly affected by the addition of lights, representing more than 1/3 of our town, a far greater impact by percentage of households than the $18 million Saxe expansion. 
9. Investing in a world class athletic facility helps New Canaan attract and then retain the best coaches and sports professionals to work with our children, leading to greater sports participation at every grade level and of course more State Championships in every sport. It's now a better facility than Darien's, with better parking. 
10. Please put this expenditure in perspective. This bonding commitment will NOT raise our taxes. $800,000 represents roughly 5% of our annual capital spending, about $114 per household. The annual debt service on finishing this project properly and creating an Enterprise Zone is $3.42 per household.
John Engel
Member of the Town Council, New Canaan (R)
203-247-4700 cell/text

Monday, September 18, 2017

DON'T COME to this open house! (You're setting yourself up to be disappointed)

DON'T come to the OPEN HOUSE this Sunday at Prides Crossing #9, 2-4pm.

You're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

You'll imagine yourself living here, lounging by the pool, relaxing on the terrace.

You'll begin planning to make the 3rd bedroom an office, converting the basement to a gym or maybe a guest bedroom, updating the kitchen.

You'll see yourself walking into town, walking to the gym, to the racquet club, or grabbing a bottle of wine from next door.

You'll leave determined to put your big house on the market and ready to downsize into Prides Crossing #9 where you know life will be easier, less stressful.

But, as I said, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

Over 12 people came through it yesterday during the open house.

Half of them were from Darien where they were overheard saying, "We don't have anything like this in Darien!"

A few came from Wilton and from Pound Ridge lamenting the fact that those towns don't have a walkable center, don't have a train station to NYC a few blocks away, and certainly don't have New Canaan's low property taxes.

This unit is 3-bedrooms and has just been reduced from $888,000 to the unheard-of price of $840,000.  I really don't expect it to last the month at that price.

Don't get me wrong, I think you will end up here at Pride's Crossing.

But, don't set your hopes on THIS CONDO.

You'll either settle for one of the 2-bedroom units that are currently on the market, or you'll wait to pay up for the next 3 bedroom to come up. The last two 3 bedrooms to sell at Prides Crossing over the last 2 years sold for $1.035 and $1.250 million. There is a third sale pending now, also for $1.250. Decisions, decisions. Grab this screaming good deal now before its gone or wait until your house sells and risk that it will be gone.

If you want more information, you can get it a couple of different ways:

1. Go read the listing information:
2. Go watch the video
3. Show up at the open house this Sunday, 2-4pm
4. Call your favorite realtor (New Canaan has only 400 to choose from, after all) and schedule an appointment to see it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Market Report through August 2017

House closings: The 172 house closings in New Canaan over the first 8 months of 2017 is a 26.5% increase vs. the same time frame in 2016. The difference has been seen entirely in the under $2 million price point, where New Canaan has had 125 closings this year as compared to 89 through August 2016. As a result, the median sale price is slightly lower at $1,457,500 as compared to $1,590,000 in 2016. 

House closings in Lower Fairfield County as a whole, through August, increased 6% year-overyear, while the median sale price ($715,000) rose 5.1%.

House Pendings: The 17 houses to go under contract in August is a 41.7% increase over August of 2016 and slightly above average for this time of year.

Inventory: There were 257 house listings in New Canaan at the beginning of the month, a decrease as compared to both September 1st, 2015 (274) and 2016 (279). It is, however, still about 20% higher then what we typically have had at this point in the years prior to 2015. 

The median list price of active houses is $1,995,000, exactly what it was on September 1st in 2016.

Condos: Condo activity remains strong with 35 closings through the first 8 months, 5 condos going pending in August, and inventory that is 24.3% higher then last year. Condo closings in 2017 have ranged in price from $225,000 to $1,600,000 with an average closing price of $754,935.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

VIDEO: L'Hammock Island in the Norwalk Islands

L'Hammock Island is located in the Norwalk Islands at the western part of Norwalk, Connecticut harbor. There are three houses there dating back to 1903. The houses are summer-only because they have no running water except for what they collect from the roof, no electricity except what they make from the sun and wind and no insulation from the Connecticut winter.

Here are a few photos from the inside of The Red House, pictured in the middle. While it is no longer red, it was painted red for most of the last 115 years.

Tubing in Norwalk Harbor

Friday, August 25, 2017

VIDEO: Welcome to New Canaan, Connecticut

#HomeIsNewCanaan The new video intended to capture the intangible and ungoogleable characteristics of the town of New Canaan is now public. Click below and watch the three-minute version of #Homeisnewcanaan. Make sure your volume is on and not muted.




Friday, August 18, 2017

VIDEO: 289 New Norwalk Road (Canaan Close #7) in New Canaan with John Engel and Susan Engel

This private riverfront townhouse set in the corner of a 7 acre complex, is only steps from the river. Six of the 10 rooms open to decks overlooking Five Mile River. All bedrooms have ensuite baths and abundant closets. Custom features are found in the many built-ins, solid doors, fine hardware & fixtures, and stunning floors: both wood & travertine. With almost 3900 SF on 3 levels, adjacent parking, a nearby garage, pool complex and private setting on the river, this is an ANGLER'S PARADISE!
Property Floorplan

Market Report Through July 31, 2017 and Reflections on the NCAdvertiser Story

According to today's New Canaan Advertiser:

Home sales up 28% year-to-date; growth at points under $2 million

I think that this feels a little optimistic and can be a bit misleading for a couple of reasons
  • the comparisons are only made between this year and last year. 2016 was an unusual year with record levels of inventory and a relatively low number of transactions when compared to the previous five years.
  • there is no mention in the article of inventory levels. The number of active listings is an important data point. Last year we peaked at a record level 340 houses and by August 1 we were down to 310. The previous year we began August with 291. This year we began August with 281 active listings. That feels pretty good, but its still above average when we look at the last 10 years.
First of all, what are the facts from the Halstead Market Report? Here is the complete report, the complete PDF of the Halstead July Market Report for New Canaan.

House Sales Activity: Through the year's first seven months New Canaan continues a trend, with closings outpacing that of last year but about average by historical measure. The 151 house closings through July is a 28% increase compared to 2106 but very similar to what we saw over this time frame between 2013-2015 (see chart below) 

Similarly, the 25 closings in the month of July is an increase year over year but actually less than the 33 closings New Canaan averaged in this month between 2012 and 2015 (see the July Solds chart below) 

Under $1 million continues to be the busiest price point and has seen an 118% increase in closings as compared to last year.

House Pendings: There were 16 houses that went pending in July, a slight increase vs. July 2016 but less than what we've typically seen this month. Of the properties that went pending two had a list price over $5 million.

What did I learn from this month's market report?
  • While the 25 sales in July is up versus 18 a year ago, it is lower than each of the previous 4 years (32, 35, 35 and 29)
  • While we closed 25 houses in July, we added 32 new listings last month.
  • While we closed 151 houses in the first 7 months versus 118, compare it to the previous 3 years (160, 143, and 148) and we see this activity is only average.
  • 11% decrease in median sale price does not mean prices fell 11%. It reflects the fact that we had 35 sales under $1 million versus 16 sales a year ago. Likewise, between $1-$2 million we had 74 sales versus 58 and above $2 million there were only 42 sales versus 44 a year ago.
  • The 12 towns in lower Fairfield County sold more houses this year (2856) than any of the previous 5 years (2306, 2848, 2540, 2762 and 2678) and it represents a 8% increase over the average of those 5 years (2626).