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The Hub: Williston home market bucks national trends

June 16, 2011

By Adam White
Observer staff
Despite increased attention to the national real estate crisis, Micki Crowley of Williston was able to sell this four-bedroom home on Southridge Rd. – without a realtor – in less than three months. Real estate values have actually shown growth in Williston in recent months, illustrating how a local market can thrive in spite of national trends. (Observer photo by Adam White)

Micki Crowley heard all the horror stories about the national real estate market: the flood of foreclosures, the false rebound and the double-dip.

So when it came time for the Williston woman to sell her four-bedroom, colonial-style home on Southridge Rd., Crowley tempered her expectations accordingly.

“We knew all about the market, so we were cautiously optimistic,” said Crowley, who had spent nearly 20 years in the home. “We put it up for sale around Easter, and it sold (last) week.”

Crowley’s successful sale was indicative of the current real estate market in Williston, which is thriving in spite of the gloom-and-doom scenarios unfolding in many other parts of the country. According to statistics from the Northwestern Vermont Board of Realtors, May 2011 saw a healthier housing market in Williston than the same month last year: Homes listed went up from 13 to 24, average days on the market dropped from 60 to 25, and the average sale price increased by nearly $25,000.

“Williston is a very desirable location, with a great mix of industrial, retail and residential areas and a strong sense of community,” said Kathy Sweeten, executive vice president of the NVBR.

Those characteristics contribute to buyer interest, but the still-rising values of Williston houses – while the national index plummets to unprecedented lows – is due to a different combination of factors, the first being foreclosures.

In the state of Florida, realtors conduct “foreclosure tours,” during which potential buyers travelling by bus can visit a dozen distressed properties in a single day. Real estate value has taken a significant hit from that trend; the average cost of a home in Florida stood at $123,000 on April 1 of this year, having fallen more than 50 percent over a five-year period.

By contrast, Internet searches of websites like homefinder.com and Yahoo! real estate fail to locate even a single foreclosure in Williston. That is because the predatory-lending problems that plagued the mortgage industry and helped bring about the U.S. real estate crisis never made it past Vermont’s watchdogs, according to one mortgage expert.

“The state was really on top of that whole situation, right from the start,” said Mark Stanton, who got his start as a mortgage broker in Williston in 1985 and spent two decades working in the business here. “They made it very clear to licensed lenders that if you were going to offer these types of products, they were going to be in your office regularly, auditing your files.”

Stanton, now a branch manager with Primary Residential Mortgage in Stowe, estimates that 70 percent of home loans during the height of the housing market came from sources other than banks but that the downturn in the market that began in 2008 caused a dramatic shift in the mortgage business.

The evidence of that shift in Williston can be found by opening a phone book from as recently as last year; nearly every one of the mortgage companies listed in town is no longer in business.

“The mortgage brokerage industry is dead,” Stanton said. “All of those independent brokers either got out of the business, went to work for a bank or credit union or became part of an independent branch of a national lender.”

That results in fewer options for potential homebuyers, but interest rates have remained favorable enough to keep the local market churning. Crowley put her home up for sale with an asking price of nearly $100,000 more than its tax assessment value from 2009, and still sold it – without a realtor – in less than three months.

“It wasn’t a bad experience at all,” Crowley said. “We’ve taken good care of the place, and in this neighborhood, we expected all along to get good value for it.”

Therein lies the key to Williston’s favorable real estate climate, according to the experts.

“We have a saying, that all real estate is local,” Sweeten said. “If someone is serious about buying or selling and they do their homework, they’ll find that Vermont bucks national trends all the time.”

Stanton takes that idea one step further.

“There is no such thing as a national real estate market,” he said.