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Brokers: LI buyers quickly snap up updated homes, while others linger on market

Gene Murphy, in the kitchen at his Kings

Gene Murphy, in the kitchen at his Kings Park home on Aug. 9, 2015, and his wife Gloria's newly renovated home was the subject of a bidding war when they listed it for $599,990 in June 2015. Brokers say "dated" LI homes sit on the market longer, slowing down sales. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Long Island real estate brokers say buyers quickly snap up homes featuring fashionable touches such as stainless steel kitchen appliances and granite countertops, while many homes with older-style interiors linger on the market for months or even years.

In some cases, buyers and sellers cannot strike a deal for homes that are in good repair but look "dated," in real estate lingo. Some sellers balk at lowering their price because they must pay off a hefty mortgage and walk away with enough cash to purchase their next home. Others dread taking a loss on a home for which they paid dearly during the housing boom, which ended in 2007.

Meanwhile, buyers struggle to scrape together a down payment, often as much as 20 percent of the price. For what they're spending, they want the floors, cabinets and fixtures to sparkle.

That disconnect between buyers and sellers -- an outgrowth of Long Island's high home prices, property taxes and other expenses, which leave many residents too cash-strapped to pay for renovations -- is slowing down certain home sales, frustrating would-be sellers and leaving buyers with a limited number of appealing options.

"Good, clean houses that are priced right are selling in the first two weeks," said Gary Baumann, an associate broker with Douglas Elliman in Huntington and Port Washington. "Kitchens sell houses, so if a house has a real nice kitchen, that's a real plus. . . . If it's the original kitchen from the '60s or '70s, people just look at it and they know they're going to spend a lot of money. Most of our buyers, they're both working, and/or they have kids, and they don't necessarily want to take on the projects."

Nationally, many older-style homes also "just sit on the market" while mint-condition homes sell quickly, especially in areas where remodeled homes are scarce and lending standards are strict, said Svenja Gudell, chief economist with Seattle-based real estate company Zillow.

"If you find a house that's turnkey, it's super hot and it will go very fast," Gudell said. "Home buyers don't have the time, energy and sometimes money to deal with the updates. . . . If the seller did the updates for you, you get to incorporate those costs as part of the mortgage."

On Long Island, homes that sold in the April-to-June period had been on the market for an average 114 days -- compared with the average 68 to 79 days during the relatively calm, pre-housing-bubble period from 2002 through 2005, according to the Manhattan-based appraisal firm Miller Samuel. The figures exclude East End home sales.

Behind the averages, some homes move quickly, and others linger.

Vikas Desai, a 39-year-old physician, had high hopes when he first began searching for a comfortable, well-maintained home in Nassau County. That was about two years ago.

Desai and his wife, Jessica, 37, a registered nurse, rent a town house in Carle Place with their two children, ages 1 and 7.

Earlier this year they toured a newly built, four-bedroom home in Westbury that was listed for $740,000. They were interested, he said, but "it got picked up by someone else."

Many of the older homes he has seen in their price range -- up to $700,000 -- have dismayed him. "It's a little depressing," he said. "Even places that are well-kept, you can see the wear and tear on some of these houses. I think the expense involved in maintaining them can be overwhelming for owners."

The notion of buying a house that needs work holds no appeal. "I've dealt with contractors in the past, and I have no desire to do any of that," he said.

Federal loans available

Many buyers do not realize there are federal loan programs that can fund a renovation as well as the home purchase, said Steven Pagano, who owns a brokerage in Huntington Station. The Federal Housing Administration's standard 203(k) loan guarantee program sets strict oversight standards, but the "Streamlined 203(k)" loans -- which can fund up to $35,000 in repairs -- allow homeowners to do much of the work themselves, and can be more cost-effective, Pagano said.

Long Islanders' borrowing through 203(k) programs surged to $91.1 million in 2011, when distressed homes flooded the market, but fell to $55.3 million by last year, federal figures show. In the first half of this year, Long Islanders borrowed nearly $25 million through the program, down 10 percent from the same period in 2014.

Long Island's housing stock dates primarily to the post-World War II boom years. Roughly 70 percent of owner-occupied, single-family homes on Long Island were built before 1980, and only 3 percent were built after 2000, census figures show.

Many longtime residents prefer to carefully maintain their homes rather than rip out kitchens and bathrooms every 10 years to keep up with trends, brokers say.

Gerry and Aileen Harrison have lived in their five-bedroom home in the Woodbury Hills section of Plainview for 48 years. The house was built in 1955, and the Harrisons love its expansive yard and spacious interior.

Gerry, 85, a retired electrical engineer who now teaches teens how to build and program computers, refinished the original wood cabinets himself when they first moved in. "For me, I love it, it's very early-American," Aileen, 83, a retired accountant, said of the kitchen.

Even so, she added, "it's not the way I have my place in Florida," which has granite kitchen counters and newer cabinets.

Gerry shrugged off the difference: "If somebody wants a new look, they can do what we did in Florida. They can have the doors replaced and have them painted."

The couple listed the home in June for $649,990. In response to feedback from potential buyers, they decided to renovate one bathroom and make improvements such as new paint, carpets, moldings and drywall in certain areas, aiming to get the work done in time for their third open house, scheduled for August 30.

Once modern, now old

Even well-maintained homes whose kitchens and bathrooms were once considered luxurious can take time to find buyers.

A homeowner will say, "My house is updated, I spent 50 grand on this kitchen," said Bethany Marten, broker-owner of the Home Buyers Resource Center in Baldwin. "But to the buyer, it's a 1990s house, it's not updated. Think about the longevity of the latest hot club -- if it stays open five years, it's a miracle."

Margaret and Paul Dill custom-built their Manorville home in 1996. The 5,800-square-foot house on 6.7 acres -- with a sprawling deck, 20-foot bar, home theater, two kitchens and an ice cream bar -- has been the site of two weddings.

"You feel like you're in an arboretum, it's very peaceful and quiet," said Margaret, 51, owner of Elite Concept Hair Designers, a Hauppauge salon that specializes in wigs and working with clients whose hair is thinning.

One kitchen's DuPont-made Corian countertops were of-the-moment when the home was built.

But now, though the home is well maintained, "I feel like the kitchen and bathrooms should definitely be redone," Dill said. "You know now you have the Pottery Barn look. We don't have that. We have more the modern look."

The couple first listed the home in 2009 for $1.35 million. They re-listed it with a new broker for $899,000 in April, and dropped the price to $799,000 in June.

Now, said listing broker Stephen Abruzzo, "it's really a good deal." Even so, he said, buyers are "still picking on the kitchen and bathrooms. We're trying to encourage them to just make an offer."

By contrast, Gene and Gloria Murphy's newly renovated home was the subject of a bidding war when they listed it for $599,990 in June.

A huge leak flooded the three-bedroom house in Kings Park a year and a half ago, forcing the owners to redo practically the entire home, said Gene, 66, a retired mechanical contractor.

"Pretty much right away, once we had the open house, the offers started pouring in," and the home went into contract for more than the asking price within weeks, Murphy said.

One would-be buyer even offered an additional $20,000 after the contract signing, he said.

The buyer who missed out, Murphy recalled, "wrote us a nice letter, saying this was her dream house, perfect in every way."

But for most homeowners it does not make sense to renovate just to appeal to buyers, real estate brokers and appraisers say.

Newly updated homes are likely to sell more quickly, but it may not be worth the money, risk and aggravation for homeowners to undertake a full-scale renovation themselves, said Jonathan Miller, chief executive of Miller Samuel. Better to price it correctly, factoring in the home's condition.

"If you just went through four months of hell, is that necessarily worth it?" Miller said. "Probably not."


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