Real Estate: Where to Summer in New England
by c.j. hughes
The front entrance to Beacon Rock, a mansion with a stunning pool overlooking the harbor, for rent in Newport this summer.
Like a drizzly nor’easter, a string of dismal economic reports over the past few years has put a damper on Boston’s second-home market, from the streaked cliffs of Martha’s Vineyard to the hydrangea-blue shores of Maine. But a recent spate of good news about consumer confidence and job growth is rejuvenating these seasonal getaways; convinced that the worst days are past, buyers seem ready to dive back in and buy something, maybe, or at least dip their toes in the rental market.
“It’s been a long, slow crawl coming out of all this, but I think that our market’s getting stronger,” says Alan Schweikert of Ocean Park Realty on the Vineyard. Don’t expect prices to “treble” year after year as they did during the peak of the boom in the mid-2000s, Schweikert says; slow, steady appreciation is more likely.
And that seems to be happening. In 2011 in the high-end category—homes that sold for $1 million or more—there were 60 sales across the Vineyard’s six towns, at an average price of $2.8 million. Though there was more activity in 2010, with 109 sales, the average price was lower, $2.4 million, which suggests an uptick in demand for the most desirable properties.
Unlike the Hamptons, where it’s not uncommon for somebody to take a house for the entire Memorial Day to Labor Day period, the Vineyard is mostly about short-term rentals, even among one percenters, since it’s an island and a bit difficult to get to. Even with a private plane, forays back and forth for work or play are not that easy to pull off, says Schweikert, adding that people are busier anyway. “Even the president came for about 10 days, and he didn’t even stay for the whole time,” he joked, about President Obama’s vacation last summer at Blue Heron Farm, a Chilmark estate. (Lord Norman Foster, the architect whose firm was behind the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s new wing, bought the property last year.)
Homes in sparsely settled Chilmark and the other towns that make up the “up-island” region on the Vineyard’s western flank—West Tisbury and Aquinnah—continue to be popular among renters who want tons of privacy. These homes often sit on multi-acre spreads of meadows and ponds, with screens of trees between neighbors.
But what’s really burgeoning is Oak Bluffs, for example along Seaview Avenue, where renovated 1880s Victorians gaze oceanward a few steps from Circuit Avenue, which bustles with lively bars and restaurants. During peak weeks in late July and early August, renters can pay $10,000 a week. Brokers add that the Katama section of Edgartown, with more modern offerings like those on Katama Drive near rollicking South Beach, where weeks cost about $20,000, is also a new favorite spot.
Nantucket, which sits across a sound from Oak Bluffs, shares many traits with its neighbor: well-preserved old architecture, a laid-back vibe, and storybook villages. But in the 1990s, the smaller island began to pull away in terms of affluence, adding new mansions that seemed to grow bigger with every expansion of the airport.
Still, even bastions of wealth got bruised by the recession. Trophy homes seemed to bear the brunt of the pain, which actually increased in 2011 with Wall Street’s wild swings. To wit: In 2010, there were 42 sales of homes between $2.5 million and $4.5 million, which was the busiest high-end segment. Yet in 2011, there were just 38 sales in that category.
Buyers here instead leaned toward less expensive homes; there were 55 sales in the $1.5 million to $2.5 million bracket, making it last year’s popular price point. Buyers “thought to themselves, I want a house on Nantucket, but maybe it doesn’t have to be so grandiose,” says Doug Foregger, chief executive officer and cofounder of Country Village Rentals & Real Estate. “They exerted self-control.”
As on the Vineyard, the mid to late summer is the sweet spot for renters, after the June fogs on the Grey Lady have burned off. The prime weeks? August, when the Beacon Hill crowd descends on Hulbert Avenue in Brant Point, where they can sit on their porches behind deep lawns with a Sancerre in hand and watch arriving ferries. Senator John Kerry is a neighbor.
Another area that’s come on strong in recent years is Siasconset, or familiarly, ’Sconset, a postage-stamp-size enclave on the southeastern edge that counts former GE chief executive Jack Welch among its summer residents. A cozy three-bedroom cottage along Codfish Park Road, near the Atlantic, can run $5,000 per week; a six-bedroom on Low Beach Road, another in-demand street, can run to $45,000 a week. With just a smattering of stores, ’Sconset is “a top pick for people who don’t want the hustle of downtown Nantucket.”
Mansions that are even more expansive dominate Newport, Rhode Island, where Versailles-like estates stud cliffs above foam-flecked coves. Because these homes are one-of-a-kind, they can be hard to value, which makes them susceptible to market whims. In 2007 actor Nicolas Cage bought a 24-room house, on 27 acres, named Gray Craig in Middletown, a well-heeled area that occupies part of Newport’s island, for $15.7 million. He sold it for $6.2 million last year, or less than half of what he paid, though Michelle Kirby, a broker with Gustave White Sotheby’s International Realty, cautions against reading too much into that drop. “The high end here is a mixed bag,” says Kirby. For less than they’d pay in the Hamptons, buyers can kick back in a house that’s twice as roomy, with a Gilded Age pedigree, too. Rentals, which are sought out by Bostonians, New Yorkers, and even Texans, are cut from the same cloth.
Available this year along Harrison Avenue is Beacon Rock, a 9-bedroom, 11-fireplace columned mansion designed by McKim, Mead & White with views of Benton Cove. It’s $125,000 per month. Similarly period-appropriate—an 1863 brick Georgian with six bedrooms and original moldings, but also central air, for $50,000 a month. These usually get snapped up, brokers say, because they are so rare; about three quarters of the turn-of-the-last-century estates are owned by the Preservation Society and can be rented only for weddings and functions.
In general the premier homes include anything along Bellevue Avenue, Ocean Drive from Castle Hill to Bailey’s Beach, Beacon Hill Road, and Harrison Avenue. And while July and August are usually trendy, renters are expected to wash up in June this summer because of the America’s Cup World Series catamaran races, which will take place from June 23 to July 1. Interest in those weeks is already spiking, says Tina Wiley, who handles rentals for Gustave White. “People come here because this place is steeped in yachting history.”
If Newport is about yachting speed, Maine is about slowing down. Along the 25 miles of idyllic coast that starts past New Hampshire, a relaxed pace suffuses the fishing villages colored with lobster pots, where hills are lined with homes that show their age and are proud of it. Sales of those dwellings have held their own in the upscale market. While sales slumped in 2011—just 29 of these large coastal summer homes sold—their average price was close to that of 2007: $1.5 million, data shows.
Rentals have also been steady, in part because the supply of the bluest-ribbon properties is directly on the water and thus limited. Quiet Cape Neddick in York is a strong draw, especially east of Shore Road, where shingle-style homes impress, though hip eateries are lacking.
In Kennebunkport, however, Dock Square buzzes with food and drinking options, as well as weekenders, who arrive from nearby Goose Rocks Beach and Cape Porpoise, and from along Ocean Avenue, a trove of brown-shingled, wind-whipped homes. They gaze at the waves near Walker’s Point, the Bush (as in two presidents) family compound.
The place that’s really expected to captivate the summer crowd this year, like last, is Ogunquit, where top-rated restaurants abound, many with panoramic views of boat-dotted inlets, like MC Perkins Cove. It sits just a short stroll away from Frazier Pasture Road, a prized residential street, which offers a convenience factor few Maine enclaves can match. But Ogunquit’s so small that you have to go early to get a good rental.
If you go, choose August, when the skies are crystalline; September, too, is growing in popularity. In any towns along this coast, high-end prices are $20,000 to $30,000 per month, with most folks staying for two weeks to a month.
Wherever the property, brokers expect 2012 to beat recent summers for sales and rentals.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF GUSTAVE WHITE SOTHEBY’S INTERNATIONAL REALTY (SHIP WATCH); BOB GOTHARD (BLUE HERON FARM); LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (KERRY) PHOTOGRAPHY BY MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (WALKER’S POINT); GEORGE BARKER (CAPE NEDDICK) PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF LILA DELMAN REAL ESTATE