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Friday, January 22, 2010

Looks can be deceiving as local real estate market is strong


By S. Alexander Gerould

WESTFIELD – James Woodruff isn't a real estate expert.

A member of the U.S. Army, Woodruff, a 2002 Westfield Academy and Central School graduate, has seen two tours of duty in Iraq while stationed in Hawaii. Shortly, he will be heading to Texas for additional training before moving to an Army base in North Carolina.

He's seen a lot of things and been to a lot of places. He's also someone who can tell you how Westfield has changed during the time he has been gone.

While driving with this reporter down South Portage Street on the way to Jamestown, Woodruff remarked on something which has affected most of the country recently – real estate.

"It seems every house is for sale in Westfield," he said, as we passed a house with a Howard Hanna Holt Real Estate sign propped up in the front lawn.

Woodruff may be right to some extent. While not every house in Westfield is for a sale, during a quick, 10 minute drive through the streets of the village, more than 10 houses and properties, along with several businesses, had "for sale" signs in their front yard.

However, looks can be deceiving, at least according to some real estate experts.

"I think what you're seeing right now is that there are some properties for sale on the major streets," said Steve Holt. A broker associate with Howard Hanna Holt Real Estate. "I think it's just been the location where they are that they stand out a little more."

Helen Baran, a real estate agent for ERA Real Estate, said, even if a house has a "for sale" sign in its front yard, it doesn't necessarily mean a house is for sale. She said real estate agents may keep signs up until the sale is definite in an effort to not scare other potential buyers away.

"At any time you have a house that has a 'for sale' sign on it, it might also be under contract," Mrs. Baran said. "There are a lot of them (houses) on the market, but there's also quite a few that are under contract right now."

While it may seem there are many houses for sale in Westfield, Nick Holt, Steve Holt's son and also a real estate agent, was quick to point out that 2009 was a really good year for his company.

"Despite what everyone has termed a down year, Howard Hanna Holt Real Estate had our best year ever in 2009, posting record sales with double digit growth," Nick said. "The truth is that, with the proper marketing, pricing and expectations, now is as good a time as any to sell or buy in this area, particularly when you consider how low interest rates are."


According to figures provided by John Rawlinson, Westfield Development Corporation executive director, Westfield had eight applications for new homes in 2008 – a lot for a small community, Rawlinson said.

But, in 2009, there were no applications.

"This, as would be expected, is linked to the general economy last year," Rawlinson said.

Meanwhile, the percentage of homeowners who cited reduced or loss of income as the top reason they were facing a home foreclosure steadily increased, according to the Chautauqua Home Rehabilitation and Improvement Corporation.

"I have been involved in foreclosure counseling in Chautauqua County for more than 15 years, and the types of customers seeking services, from income levels to sources of mortgages, has changed profoundly," said John Murphy, CHRIC executive director. "We used to see more low-income borrowers and those with sub-prime mortgages coming in for counseling, and now it is much more across the board. The economy and job loss has challenged so many more people in managing their debts, including making sure they don't lose their homes."

Mrs. Baran has also seen the economy's impact on real estate in the area. She said a good number of homes are selling at or below market price, while high-priced homes aren't priced as high as they were two years ago.

"It's a constantly rotating situation," Mrs. Baran said. "There are a lot of the old, historic homes for sale right now. We are experiencing some houses that are for sale in Westfield because people have run into economic hard times."

While other parts of the country have faced real estate meltdowns recently, Westfield and Chautauqua County has remained stable, and, in some cases, fairly robust.

"Prices in this market were never really artificially inflated, and local lenders were very good about avoiding predatory practices," Nick Holt said. "So, when the bubble burst, we didn't take the hit that other areas did."

"The smaller communities … fared very well," Steve Holt added. "We really didn't see what the rest of the country was seeing. Even the vacation home market was pretty strong. We didn't have the bubble. We didn't have the big up, and we didn't have the big down."

While local real estate experts have said Westfield and Chautauqua County were not hit as hard by the real estate meltdown as other areas, Rawlin said any impact on what the WDC considers its number one asset – the quality of the community's housing stock – can have some implications.

"We have, like the rest of the country, been hit by the downturn, but not really as bad as many locations," Rawlinson said. "In fact, Western New York faired very well in the overall housing market debacle."


Thanks to a larger Internet presence, Nick Holt said Howard Hanna Holt Real Estate has had inquires on homes in the area from as far away as California, Colorado and Florida. People, he said, come from all over looking for a small, quaint town to call home.

"I am always amazed at the interest people have in moving to Westfield," Nick Holt said. "There are very few old fashioned small towns anymore, with a downtown strip and good neighborhoods within the village.  We find people all the time who stop in and fall in love."

Steve Holt agreed, adding many people looking to relocate are looking for a change to their lifestyle.

"When they come to areas like here, number one they get a great buy for their money, and they're more apt here to truly pick the community they want to pick," he said. "Communities like Westfield are the ones that a lot of people are picking. It's because of the quality of the lifestyle. There are things going on, and it's that small town atmosphere where people want to raise kids and retire."

However, real estate experts and officials see one major issue affecting real estate in the area – taxes.

"The biggest questions I have (potential homeowners) are these really the taxes," Mrs. Baran said. "I have to say, 'Yes, they are.' You've got people that that doesn't mean anything to them and that's okay … but a lot of people are taking a look at their costs."

Rawlinson agreed.

"I don't see us having real estate issues," he said. "The biggest issue is taxes, which is really a state problem which influences us all. Until consolidation of schools and government is attacked and government bureaucracy reduced, we all suffer."

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