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Wannabe Home Buyers in Burlington Have to Get Creative


Published June 12, 2018 at 3:00 p.m.
Updated July 23, 2018 at 4:27 p.m.

  • Tim Newcomb

Loren and Rob Dow of Burlington are selling their condo and looking to buy a single-family home near downtown and the University of Vermont. Nikki Jiraff and Barry Wyman of Plainfield are first-time home buyers seeking to live in the city's New North End. Although the couples differ in circumstance — and price point — both have faced the same highly competitive market.

"There's been an increase in demand in the last 12 months, while there's been an inventory shortage across all price points," said Jessica Bridge, cofounder of Element Real Estate in Burlington.

The number of houses for sale listed in May in Chittenden County decreased by half in the past two years and by 30 percent in the past year, wrote Element cofounder Dan Cypress, citing data from the Northwestern Vermont Board of Realtors. In Burlington, homes for sale numbered equally in May 2016 and 2017 but decreased by 25 percent in the past year. Compounding Queen City competition, added Cypress, is the fact that "Homes are still selling in a little over a week — too quickly for people who are not trigger ready."

But those numbers don't tell the whole story. The sellers' market in Burlington is so strong that many homes are sold by word of mouth, never even making it onto real estate agents' radars, said Bridge.

So, what's a prospective home buyer to do? Get creative.

Rob, Hanson and Loren Dow - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Rob, Hanson and Loren Dow

"It's definitely an all-hands-on-deck process to find a house," said Loren, 35, UVM's assistant director of academic services in athletics. She and Rob, 36, the men's soccer coach at UVM, are working with agent Marla Woulf of Vermont Real Estate Associates. They have also enlisted the help of coworkers and friends, sent letters to homeowners, and posted on social media. The couple began the process four months ago and, as of press time, was still seeking to sell and buy.

"Everyone at this point is sick of hearing that we are looking for a house," said Loren. "Rob coaches for a local soccer club, and all the parents in the club know that we're looking for a house. We have everyone we know sending us listings, and we have friends who are contractors coming with us to look at the more fixer-upper places."

The Dows moved to Burlington in 2012 and purchased their condo on South Williams Street in 2014. By comparison, that purchase was a breeze.

"We weren't in bidding wars," Loren recalled. "We found a place that we really liked and made an offer and had some negotiations, but it ended up working out. We weren't competing on every single offer that we made."

What the Dows seek to buy now isn't extraordinary: a house in their preferred location with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. But the price tag and the competitive process have surprised them.

"We're in the 400,000 to 450,000 range, which I feel is a high range to be in," said Loren. "We feel fortunate that we have the ability to buy something in that price range, for sure, but I think it's just the standard ... If you want to be closer to the town center and UVM," she added, "that's what the prices are."

Of the single-family homes for sale in Chittenden County at the Dows' price point in April 2018, only one was in Burlington, said Bridge. Although the number of comparable homes for sale increased in the county in May, there were no new listings in the Queen City specifically, she added.

"I think one of the challenges is that, if you sell in this market and you're not leaving Burlington, you have to buy in this market," said Bridge. "So people are waiting until something comes up that they'd like to buy, and, if that doesn't come up, they aren't motivated to sell."

In February, the Dows signed a contract with a buyer whom Rob found through a UVM colleague. Through April, the couple made six offers, most for the full asking price. None was accepted. When their buyer's contract expired at the end of April, they put their condo back on the market. Since then, they've made numerous additional offers — some for as much as $15,000 above the asking price — to no avail.

Loren learned from real estate agent Woulf that, in this market, including a contingency to sell their condo in an offer to buy makes the couple less competitive than buyers with no such contingencies. So the Dows are using every resource at hand to find a larger home for themselves and their ambulatory toddler.

For example, a friend who used to live on Henry Street hand-delivered 25 letters from the couple, which stated, among other things, "We are a responsible family that values raising our son in this community." The Dows heard back from two homeowners but neither situation was a match.

The couple has also asked friends in target neighborhoods to post on Front Porch Forum, a strategy that is becoming more common. According to forum cofounder Michael Wood-Lewis, April postings statewide in the housing and real estate category increased from 33 in 2013 to 750 in 2017 and 2018.

Nikki Jiraff, Barry Wyman and their son. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Nikki Jiraff, Barry Wyman and their son.

Jiraff and Wyman, both 36, have also enlisted the help of friends and used door-to-door appeals to purchase a house. Their urgency stems from a desire to be closer to Jiraff's work — she's a nurse at Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties. Wyman is field director and educator at EarthWalk Vermont in Plainfield. They want a house large enough to accommodate both their 7-month-old son, who's "moving and grooving now," said Jiraff, and a live-in family member who is wheelchair bound.

As renters, they've had bargaining advantages over buyers with selling contingencies. But their remote location outside Montpelier has made it difficult to search for houses in the New North End, where they've been looking in the $250,000 range.

"We've been looking for months, and everything in our price range would be gone in less than one day," said Jiraff. "We've been saving for 10 years for this house, and I was like, Cool. We have our down payment. We're ready. All we have to do is buy one, right? Well, not in Burlington."

She and Wyman have been impressed by the work of their agent, Dana Basiliere of Rossi & Riina Real Estate, but they knew that additional efforts were essential.

With the help of close friends Meghan and Isaiah Keepin of the New North End, Jiraff and Wyman decided to walk the neighborhood and leave information at houses they liked. The Keepins' 5-year-old son, Ren, was so excited by the prospect of the couple's move, he enthusiastically taped postcards on 30 doors, said Jiraff.

In the end, Meghan alerted Jiraff and Wyman to a house that was about to go on the market. After a roller coaster of offers and contact between real estate agents, the owners accepted the couple’s offer, and they closed on the house on June 1.

“It didn’t seem to have much to do with our postcard, but maybe it did and we didn’t know,” said Jiraff. “But we feel really lucky that we found a house in the New North End, exactly where we want to live.

"Honestly, the house search has been so stressful," she continued, "because this is our first home, it's so much money for such a tiny house, and you have to make a decision right then. You have no time to consider or think, Is this a good idea?"

For buyers feeling frustrated by the current Burlington market, Bridge offers a long-term view.

"This will also change," she said. "The only thing that's constant is change. You have to adapt ... It can be discouraging, but hang in there."

Meanwhile, the Dows are still looking. Reflecting on unique items that she and her husband might include in a house offer, Loren hit on an idea.

"My husband owns Vermont Futbol Academy, a soccer camp in the summer for kids. I think he's willing to scholarship a player for a week of VFA camp. We'll put that in our offer," she said with a laugh.

The original print version of this article was headlined "House Calls"

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