Town By Town: Ambler's revival goes on

Restaurants, shops, and theaters line Butler Pike, the main thoroughfare through Ambler's downtown, which is a draw to many considering moving there. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.

It's not surprising that Ambler has joined the growing list of Pennsylvania boroughs emerging from a postindustrial-era slumber.

The Montgomery County community, surrounded by affluent townships such as Lower Gwynedd and Whitpain that are filled with new, larger homes, has all the ingredients other revitalized boroughs do, including affordable starter homes, quality schools (in the Wissahickon and Upper Dublin districts), boutique shops, a theater, and easy access to highways (Route 309 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike).

"I know it is overused, but think walkability and the opportunity to take your kids to the toy store without getting into the car," says Cheryl Miller, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate. "Places like Ambler appeal to people who had the kind of life you find there these days when they were young and single, [or] young and married, [and] find they can have it again."

Long & Foster agent Drew Frank, who bought a house on the borough-Lower Gwynedd boundary in 2003 - "my lawn is in Ambler," he says - believes that was the year things began to turn around.

"Interest in living here began to spike after that," Frank says - so much so that one magazine said Ambler was one of the top two or three places to live in the Philadelphia region.

During the real estate downturn, the housing market in Ambler "took a step back," Frank says, but he notes that sales and prices here didn't suffer as severely as they did in other places, and that the population continued to grow more diverse.

Ambler is not only drawing a "younger, hip crowd," he says. Older people from surrounding towns are downsizing from those big houses on half- to two-acre lots.

Why Ambler?

Steven Gilbert, who has lived just outside the borough in Upper Dublin since 2006, summed it up this way: "Convenience to the regional rail [the Doylestown-Lansdale line], great restaurants . . . [and] small-town feel."

In 2013, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach's HomExpert Report shows, there were 64 sales in the borough - 16 more (33 percent) than there were in 2012. The median price, $215,750, was almost 9 percent higher than in 2012, although well below the $281,950 median on 82 sales in 2010.

Many of the 2010 sales were Station Square townhouses on Mary Ambler Way, near the SEPTA rail station and a block from downtown. They "sold quickly even in a down market," Frank says.

The typical resale list price for one of those 58 townhouses, built by WB Homes: $375,000 to $380,000.

"Houses sell right away," says Frank, noting that Ambler, as with many target communities, has a definite shortage of properties for sale, with "the market struggling for listings."

There is "little inventory - only four active listings from $170,000 to $380,000," says Diane Williams of Weichert Realtors. "With an average of three monthly sales, the price absorption rate is one month."

Average time on the market is 47 days, Williams says.

Jerome Scarpello, president of Leo Mortgage in Ambler, says he's seen the borough's revitalization firsthand, "and it's a wonderful thing to witness."

"It's a classic 'Main Street USA' community, with many restaurants, unique shops, and businesses, that lends itself to strolling from store to store," he says.

Over the years, Scarpello has done financing for buyers of starter homes, Victorians from the early 1900s, duplexes, and new-construction townhouses.

"There are stunning vintage stone single homes that sell in the range of $250,000 to $380,000," says Williams, as well as older rowhouses going from $175,000 to $185,000. Vintage all-stone twins sell for $195,000 to $220,000, other older single homes for $237,000 to 350,000.

"Home values seem to be stable and rising slightly, yet the borough remains affordable," Scarpello says.

Notes Miller: "In the past, people moved to Ambler because they had to," since prices were lower than elsewhere. "Now, they want to come here."

Yet the legacy of asbestos production in Ambler still looms large for many prospective buyers, Frank and Miller say, since one part of town was a Superfund site. Complete remediation is said to be a couple of years away, Frank says.

Scarpello says that "the arrival of new restaurants, merchants, and the new Bottom Dollar food store shows that businesses are investing in Ambler - a nice change from as little as four years ago, when vacant storefronts were noticeable."

Frank, who dines at the restaurants most weekends, says any that go out of business are quickly replaced by others, such as the Lucky Well, which "became a hot spot almost overnight."

Fourteen dining spots participated in a restaurant week in mid-January - one of a growing number of events sponsored by the nonprofit Ambler Main Street organization throughout the year.

And there's the restored Ambler Theater, built in 1928, which offers a $40-a-year membership "and is usually packed" for first-run movies and stage productions, Williams says.

"It is not just young people who frequent Ambler," she says. "Those a bit older love it, too."

By the Numbers

Population: 6,497 (2012)

Median income: $57,850 (2011)

Area: 0.8 square miles

Homes for sale: 4

Settlements in the last three months: 16

Median days on market: 47

Median sale price

(all homes): $215,750

Housing stock: 2,605 units, mostly pre-World War II; new townhouses and infill construction

School districts: Wissahickon; Upper Dublin

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau;; Borough of Ambler; Berkshire Hathway Home Services Fox & Roach HomExpert Report; Diane Williams, Weichert Realtors

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