Town By Town: Swarthmore's timeless charms
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.
Nine years ago, Rosemary and Bill Fox were living in Center City, and their daughter Olivia was nearing preschool age.
Rosemary Fox had grown up in Springfield, Delaware County, and Bill Fox in Northeast Philadelphia, so their search for a town to move to and a top school district was focused on Bucks County and Delco.
They chose Swarthmore, even though the property taxes "are on the high side," Rosemary says.
"We looked at houses here and liked what we saw, especially the fact that no matter where we go, we can walk everywhere," which offers both Olivia and younger daughter Kate an opportunity to move about the borough on their own and safely.
The Wallingford-Swarthmore School District was the magnet that drew the family to the borough, where, Rosemary says, "it is cool to be smart."
Another attraction, she says: Swarthmore's "nice little town center, which they call 'the village' " and where, until selling her share to two partners, Rosemary Fox was an owner of Creative Living Room on South Chester Road, which provides arts classes to children 31/2 years old to second grade.
"The village" is where things are starting to pop here, thanks to the efforts of Swarthmore College and the borough to offer more reasons for students and out-of-towners to visit, says Marty Spiegel, the town center's coordinator.
"We aren't a Media or a West Chester" - each a county seat with a captive daytime audience and a burgeoning nightlife - "and Swarthmore is too small to support it on its own, so we need outside help," Spiegel says.
If the idea of increasing the population of a small community strikes your fancy, be aware that there aren't many houses for sale here - just 12 listings ranging in price from $106,000 to $875,000, says S. Clark Kendus, an agent with Weichert Realtors' Media office.
"It is an eclectic market," says Kendus, and "people will go to any lengths to get there. Houses are 50 to 75 years and older, and many don't have central air. Yet these houses don't even have to be updated to sell."
That bucks the trend just about everywhere else of buyers demanding perfection at below-market prices - a trade-off, he says, for "walkability, the school district, the train to Center City, and the academic connection with Swarthmore College."
John Duffy, president of Duffy Real Estate on the Main Line, says the shortages of homes for sale in places such as Swarthmore, Narberth, and Wayne "find more buyers willing to have the work done."
There won't be much new residential construction in Swarthmore's future, either. "I've looked there, but it is so mature, there is very little developable land," says David Della Porta, president of Cornerstone Properties in Villanova, which builds single and multifamily housing in Delaware and Chester Counties.
Three current listings are at the Strath Haven Condominium on Yale Avenue, a complex of 219 one- to three-bedroom units where prices in the last six months have ranged from $69,000 to $365,000. At the small 107 Rutgers condo complex, units go for about $159,000, and Village Greens townhouses have been closing in the upper $300,000s.
Four sales are pending in the borough, and just 19 homes have sold in the last six months, with the average price $608,578, Kendus says.
Swarthmore is "not your typical college town," he says: A dry community, it doesn't have the bar scene other places have.
Yet the college and the borough are entwined, and the relationship is close, says Maurice Eldridge, Class of '61, the school's vice president of community relations. Town-gown situations that arise are always settled amicably, he says.
"For decades, the college wanted the faculty to live close by in the borough," he adds, although it is more scattered now.
The campus sits on both sides of the SEPTA tracks, with athletic fields and three residence halls near the town center. A large part of the college staff now works in an office park at 101 S. Chester Rd., and students and faculty frequent Hobbs coffee shop on Park Avenue.
Concerns about the future of the town center brought the college and borough together in 1999, Eldridge says. One result was a new and bigger home for the Swarthmore Co-op Food Market that opened in 2004, "which is thriving and thus reflects what we were hoping for."
Although the planning begun 15 years ago has undergone revision, Spiegel says the piece about to happen will be a "major game-changer" that will "create venues to attract more students" and be a reason for others to visit Swarthmore, as well.
That piece is Town Center West, to be built by the college on land it owns near the train station.
With ground to be broken in 2014, Spiegel hopes, Town Center West will include a 40-room inn with conference and meeting facilities, as well as a restaurant granted an exemption by the state Liquor Control Board to serve alcoholic beverages. (The borough voted in 2001 to allow a license to be granted to a restaurant in a hotel on college property.)
The college bookstore will be relocated from the campus to Town Center West, to serve students and residents.
Swarthmore By the Numbers
Population: 6,194 (2010)
Median income: $113,303 (2011)
Area: 1.4 square miles
Homes for sale: 12
Settlements in the last three months: 13
Median days on
the market: 81
Median price (single-family homes): $330,000
Housing stock: Pre-World War II; some recent construction
School district: Wallingford-Swarthmore
SOURCES: U.S. Census, City-Data.com, Trulia. com; Prudential Fox & Roach HomExpert Report; S. Clark Kendus, Weichert Realtors