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The hot real estate market creates a 'big squeeze'

Michael and Keri Smerechniak amid some of their

Michael and Keri Smerechniak amid some of their stored belongings at the Jericho home they are renting until they can find a house to buy. Credit: Craig Ruttle

After raising three daughters in Whitestone, Queens, Michael and Keri Smerechniak put their house on the market last spring to move closer to the deli Michael owns in Mineola. But when their house sold in five weeks, they suddenly found themselves in a bind when the owners of a house they were going to buy in Melville canceled, leaving the couple to start their search again.

"When that fell through, it was a blow," says Keri Smerechniak, 54, a recruiter for a hedge fund. "Then the reality set in — we were going to have to move twice."

But finding a new house to buy in this hot real estate market is tough. "It’s been crickets," says Michael Smerechniak, 56, who owns Long Island Gourmet, a deli and caterer with sites in Mineola and in Garden City. "So we hustled to find a rental and we found a split-level in Jericho."

Before their move, the couple had to deal with 28 years' worth of accumulated belongings over the course of six months. What was left after donations and gifting is sitting in boxes divided between a storage room in Michael’s Mineola deli and the family’s Jericho rental.

"It’s hard just to think that at some point I’m going to have to go through this again," says Keri.

The Smerechniaks are not alone in their experience of being squeezed among home sale, temporary rental and new purchase. The Long Island real estate market has continued to set new all-time highs, not only in prices, but also in speed of sales, according to data released last month by real estate brokerage Douglas Elliman and appraisal firm Miller Samuel. Homes sold in just 45 days in the third quarter from the day a home was first listed to when a buyer signed a contract. Last year, it was 76 days.

"It’s been chaotic," says the Smerechniaks’ real estate agent, Sandi Polinsky, owner-broker of Goldilocks Real Estate, who is on the constant lookout for a new home for them.

Frantic house search

For social worker Aimee Mateo, 48, and her family of four, the squeeze between homes came when their central-Suffolk residence sold last March after only one day on the market. That ignited a furious house search for her and husband, Amin, 39, a network IT specialist.

"Our old home had vaulted ceilings, two bathrooms, central air, gas heat, walk-in closets and a detached garage," she says. "But with our twins entering kindergarten, we wanted a school district with more opportunities in a tight-knit community. We hoped to move between West Sayville and Blue Point, to a bigger home with a larger yard, but those houses were asking $700,000 and selling for $100,000 more. We had to lower our expectations and look for a smaller place."

They moved in with Amin’s parents and stowed their belongings in two large storage pods, which cost $1,000 per month, loaded up Aimee’s mother’s basement and stored more belongings in a container in Amin’s parents' yard. Other items, like a 50-inch clock that hung from the ceiling in their former home, simply had to go.

On their 23rd bid, the Mateos finally landed a 1,700-square-foot home in Bayport with a small, detached garage on a quarter-acre for $575,000. It doesn’t have central air conditioning, it heats with oil, and the kitchen is circa 1975," says Aimee, only half-joking. "Still, it was unoccupied, and we love the neighborhood. Now, we can upgrade at our own pace."

'Living in limbo'

The experience can be psychologically draining.

"The hardest part is living in limbo," says Keri Smerechniak. She describes not feeling like she can fully settle in to her rental because she and her husband might soon find a home to buy. "I'm not really trying to make friends or decorate because this isn't my house and it's not really my neighborhood," she says. "I know I'll be packing a second time."

Tara Giambrone and her husband, both age 50, encountered a similar situation after a buyer snapped up their Colonial on 1.33 acres for close to the asking price of $1.599 million within a few days of it going on the market late last year.

The Giambrones, who are both self-employed and who have one child in college and two others living on their own, had decided to downsize to a smaller, less expensive house in their Suffolk neighborhood. "At 5,000 square feet we now had empty bedrooms, a huge kitchen, plus a family room and playroom that wasn’t seeing much use," says Giambrone. "Houses in our neighborhood were selling for premium prices. So, we decided to cash out."

The quick sale left little time to find a new home. More than a year later the couple are living in a three-bedroom rental house near the house they sold, their second of this journey — with most of their belongings still packed away in storage.

"Financially, selling our house was great, but I regret the pickle it left us in today," says Giambrone. "We realized we might not get a new home immediately because inventory was tight, but it was hard to even find a rental house. I knew we were in trouble when there were 13 offers ahead of us on a bid we placed."

To date, the couple has bid on nine homes and visited many others. They nearly closed a deal when one homeowner said he expected to accept the Giambrones' offer within a couple of days. Two days later, after appraising his own chances of finding a new home, he pulled the house off the market.

"Not being able to find a new house put us in a really big squeeze," says Giambrone. "I don’t know whether to laugh over how well we did selling our house, or cry because we can’t find a new one."

The couple put in "significant bids" on homes and still faced owners seeking another $50,000, she says. Despite the experience, Giambrone remains optimistic, saying, "I’m still feeling positive because I know we’ll get the home we want. I just hope it comes sooner rather than later."

Dodging the squeeze

“It’s a crazy housing market right now,” says Sandi Polinsky, broker-owner of Goldilocks Real Estate. “To avoid being caught in a squeeze, homeowners who want to sell their current home and then buy a new one here on Long Island really need to think ahead.”

To that end:

  • Create a backup plan. If your home sells quickly, you’ll need a place to stay and a place to stash your belongings. Will a family member help? If not, consider renting a home or using a long-term-stay hotel. For storage, try family, self-storage facilities and portable units.
  • Be reasonable and flexible while seeking a new home. Expect to pay fair market value or more. Don’t make too many demands on the sellers or they’ll simply choose another buyer.

—Tom Schlichter

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