Parting with tens of thousands of dollars in a single transaction is a scary prospect for first-time home buyers. Before laying out that down payment, they want reassurance that a starter home purchase will be a wise investment -- one that will build equity and pave the way for a trade-up in a few years.
The good news is that while prices and mortgage interest rates remain relatively affordable, it's becoming a much safer bet than it was several years ago that the value of a home purchased today will appreciate. "Inventory in the last six months is hitting the point where we're starting to see evidence of price appreciation -- or, worst case, stability, and poised for an increase," says real estate analyst Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel, a Manhattan-based appraisal firm that tracks Long Island real estate. "This is the beginning of the next era of the housing market."
For the best odds, stick with communities where home prices have shown a good track record. The most stable markets tend to have reasonable taxes and ample moderately priced homes, because that's where demand is steadiest, says Kevin Leatherman, president of the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island. There tend to be fewer surprises in these markets than in those where demand may be somewhat tied to weather, the economy or other unpredictable forces.
A good starter neighborhood also should have a healthy supply of move-up homes, says Mary Alice Ruppert of Realty Connect USA. Buyers who can trade up tend to be less transient and more committed to the community, she says.
And the last piece of the puzzle, though hard to quantify, should be obvious: Realtors cite well-kept homes, brisk local commerce and lively turnouts for community events as the visible hallmarks buyers seek in the quintessential nice neighborhood. Look for them even if they're not important to you, because they're likely to appeal to future buyers -- after all, a starter home, by definition, is bought to be sold.
Size and price
Local Realtors say starter homes typically have three bedrooms and one to 1 1/2 bathrooms and range in price from $275,000 to $380,000 in Nassau and $250,000 to $350,000 in Suffolk. What follows is a sampling of five safe-bet starter- home communities where houses have held their value. Communities were selected by comparing the median sales price and the number of sales for the year ending in August 2013 with the same figures for the year ending in August 2012, according to data provided by the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island.
TRACK RECORD The median sales price in Valley Stream rose 1.5 percent, from $325,000 for the year ending in August 2012 to $330,000 for the year ending in August 2013. The number of sales rose 13.4 percent for the same period, from 299 to 339. In the past 12 months there were 378 sales, ranging from $41,000 for a one-bedroom co-op with a monthly maintenance fee of $893 to $640,000 for a four-bedroom Colonial with annual taxes of $10,481. Some 277 of those homes were priced at less than $380,000, making up 73 percent of sales.
There was a lively turnout for the recent Community Fest, a street fair celebrating Valley Stream's culture and businesses with music, food and activities. In addition to smaller businesses, Valley Stream is home to Green Acres Mall.
The community is getting excited for upcoming Halloween activities at Valley Stream's Hendrickson Park, including pumpkin painting and costume contests. And each summer at Fireman's Field, "they do a Fourth of July that's unbelievable," says Mary Alice Ruppert of Realty Connect USA, referring to the popular fireworks display. There's a summer concert series as well.
This three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bathroom Colonial in the Valley Stream 24 school district has hardwood floors and new windows. Annual taxes on the 40-by-100-foot lot are $7,873. It's listed with R. Cory Knopf of Hal Knopf Realty Inc.
TRACK RECORD The median sales price rose 7.7 percent, from $336,000 for the year ending August 2012 to $362,000 for the year ending August 2013, and the number of sales increased 33 percent, from 36 to 48, for the same period. In the past 12 months there were 49 sales in South Setauket, with prices ranging from $200,000 for a four-bedroom high-ranch with taxes of $6,859 to $650,000 for a four-bedroom ranch with taxes of $16,808. Some 18 of those homes were priced at less than $350,000, making up 37 percent of sales.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE There are 34 homes listed in South Setauket. Prices range from $239,990 for a four-bedroom ranch with taxes of $8,199 to $750,000 for a four-bedroom Colonial with taxes of $15,877. There are seven homes priced below $350,000 -- 21 percent of homes listed.
COMMUNITY HIGHLIGHTS South Setauket is a great choice for first-time buyers who love the Three Village area and schools but may be priced out of the district's typically costlier areas such as Setauket and East Setauket. For some buyers, South Setauket is a smart steppingstone on the way to a North Shore neighborhood. Others choose to stay and expand, or trade up within the community, which has Colonials both old and new, ranches and Capes.
Either way, "they have pretty much everything at their fingertips," says Rose Raimondo Ricardo of Coldwell Banker Residential. "What keeps them there is the proximity to the roadways and shopping. It's a good community, close to the North Shore, parks and beaches." It is also convenient to stores and restaurants on Route 347 and Route 25A, as well as the Smith Haven Mall. It also offers easy access to cultural arts at the Staller Center on the Stony Brook University campus.
South Setauket students attend Ward Melville High School. Known for earning academic accolades, the school also throws an impressive homecoming shindig with a pep rally, bonfire, carnival, live music and, of course, the big game.
This three-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch in the Three Village school district features a granite counter in the bathroom. It's listed with Rose Raimondo Ricardo of Coldwell Banker Residential. Annual taxes on the 0.23-acre property are $9,000. Click here for more information.
TRACK RECORD The median sales price in Levittown rose 4.3 percent, from $297,000 in the year ending August 2012 to $310,000 in the year ending August 2013. The number of sales rose 3.6 percent, from 300 to 311, over the same period. In the past 12 months there were 317 sales in Levittown, ranging in price from $132,500 for a studio condo with annual taxes of $2,917 to $600,000 for a four-bedroom newly built house with annual taxes of $13,500. Some 270 of those homes were priced at less than $380,000, making up 85 percent of sales.
WHATS AVAILABLE There are 104 homes listed in Levittown. Prices range from $225,000 for a four-bedroom Cape with taxes of $9,374 to $599,000 for a six-bedroom Colonial with taxes of $17,639. There are 73 homes priced below $380,000, making up 70 percent of homes listed.
COMMUNITY LIFE Levittown is a perfect example of a starter home community, says Susan Helsinger of Douglas Elliman Real Estate. In fact, Levittown is where the starter home concept was born. Developed rapidly at the end of World War II to provide affordable homes for returning veterans, Levittown quickly became known for its side-by-side, 60-by-100-foot lots and uniform rows of ranches and Capes.
That uniformity has largely given way to variety over the years. A lot have been expanded, says Mary Alice Ruppert of Realty Connect USA. Thats because in this tightly developed suburb, its not uncommon for growing families to build up rather than trade up, turning their starter home into their dream home.
Buyers like the central location, with easy access to Hempstead Turnpike and Wantagh Parkway. In recent years, revitalization efforts have brightened parts of Levittowns business districts with new sidewalks and spruced-up storefronts. The parks received upgrades, too. Locals enjoy classic suburban pastimes such as movies and bowling; for instance, singles played amusing icebreaker games during a bowling mixer at South Levittown Lanes last week. Families favor Levittowns annual Lazy Days of Summer festival, which offers face painting, pony rides and other kid-friendly fun.
The bathroom, roof, furnace, wood floors and stainless-steel appliances are all new in this three-bedroom, one-bathroom Cape. The home is in the Levittown school district. Annual taxes for the 60-by-100-foot property are $9,274. Its listed with Jill Brown and Susan Hucke of Daniel Gale Sothebys International Realty.
TRACK RECORD The median sales price in Holtsville held steady at $340,000 for the year ending August 2012 to the year ending August 2013. The number of sales rose 25 percent, from 60 to 75. In the past 12 months there were 119 sales in Holtsville with prices ranging from $70,000 for a one-bedroom co-op with a monthly maintenance fee of $631 to $600,000 for a four-bedroom Colonial with taxes of $13,003. Some 81 of those homes were priced at less than $350,000, making up 68 percent of sales.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE There are 68 homes listed for sale in Holtsville. Prices range from $124,990 for a one-bedroom co-op with an $843 monthly maintenance fee to $599,990 for a four-bedroom Colonial with annual taxes of $10,000. There are 44 homes priced below $350,000, making up 65 percent of homes listed.
COMMUNITY HIGHLIGHTS Residents of all ages gravitate to the Town of Brookhaven Ecology Center and Animal Preserve in Holtsville. There's a zoo with an assortment of rescued wildlife on exhibit, playground, fitness trail and three-pool swimming complex. The center is also the site of seasonal festivities -- for instance, locals gather here each February to hear the Groundhog Day prognostication of furry resident Holtsville Hal.
Dinner and a movie are easy to come by in Holtsville. The theaters at Island 16: Cinema de Lux in Holtsville features stadium seating. There are also three Director's Halls where, for an extra $3, you can reserve specific seats in advance, and servers will deliver food and drink orders to your seat. There's even a small bar on the premises, Chatters Bar & Grill, where moviegoers can enjoy cocktails and pub fare. Several restaurants share the parking lot with the multiplex, as well.
A starter home budget in Holtsville can get you anything from a two-bedroom condo to a five-bedroom high-ranch, as well as an assortment of Colonials, split-levels and Capes. When you're ready to trade up, there's a gated homeowner association with newer Colonials. New homes are under construction, as well.
This three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch in the Sachem school district features a large den with skylights. Annual taxes for the 120-by-100-foot property are $8,475. It's listed with Cynthia Durand of Realty Connect USA LLC.
TRACK RECORD The median sales price in Malverne rose 3.5 percent, from $361,250 in the year ending August 2012 to $374,000 in the year ending August 2013. The number of sales went from 76 to 74 over the same period, a 2.6 percent dip. In the past 12 months there were 81 sales in Malverne, with prices ranging from $200,000 for a two-bedroom Cape with taxes of $7,537 to $595,000 for a four-bedroom Colonial with taxes of $17,033. Some 35 of those homes were priced at less than $380,000, making up 43 percent of sales.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE There are 34 homes for sale in Malverne, with prices ranging from $328,000 for a two-bedroom Colonial with taxes of $11,365 to $749,000 for a five-bedroom Colonial with taxes of $17,373. Twelve homes are priced below $380,000, making up 35 percent of homes listed.
COMMUNITY LIFE Malverne is a surprising oasis of quaint village living that belies the community's proximity to the city -- about a 42-minute train ride from the Long Island Rail Road Malverne station to Penn Station.
"There's a lot of charm and character," says Kevin Leatherman, broker owner of Coldwell Banker Surf in Rockville Centre. "It's very residential. . . . It has an old-town feel." This is, in part, because local commerce consists mostly of village shops and restaurants as opposed to strip malls, Leatherman says.
Attractions include a movie theater, 16-lane bowling alley and Crossroads Farm at Grossman's, a working certified organic farm where the Malverne Civic Association held its annual wine tasting last week.
This three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath ranch in Valley Stream's 13 school district has stainless-steel appliances. Annual taxes for the 100-by-102-foot property are $11,073 after a STAR reduction of $1,303. It's listed as a short sale with Cheryl Uram of Douglas Elliman Real Estate.
MEDIAN SALES PRICES
Nassau County: $445,000
Suffolk County: $347,750
SOURCE: Multiple Listing Service of Long Island through August 2013