In Philly’s suburbs, a patchwork of price increases and declines

Michelle Heller (center), 33, with Realtor Diane Williams, discussing painting options with painter Jim Cooper in the townhouse that Heller is buying in North Wales with her boyfriend. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

Eager buyers in search of brand-new houses in wide-open spaces fed the real estate boom in the four suburban Pennsylvania counties surrounding Philadelphia. Prospective homeowners camped for days at builders' sales offices on the edge of Chester County farmland, hoping they'd be the first to snag premium lots.

But that was a lifetime ago.

After six years of economic upheaval, it's the closer-in suburban communities, mostly in central Bucks, Chester and Montgomery Counties and western Delaware County, that appear to have gained longer-term value, according to an Econsult Corp. analysis of 376,257 regional sales from April 1, 2005, to June 30, 2011.

Communities on the suburban fringe, such as Upper Oxford (down 20 percent) and West Caln (down 27 percent) in Chester County and Springfield, Bucks County (down 30 percent), have fared less well as the struggling economy continues to shut thousands of first-time and less-well-off buyers out of the market.

Between 2005, when prices began taking off locally, and second quarter 2011, the analysis shows, median prices fell 18.7 percent in the Pennsylvania suburbs - better than South Jersey's 29 percent, but worse than the city's 15.8 percent drop. (Median is the middle value: Half the homes sold for more, half for less.)

That's the reverse of the way things played out after the last downturn in housing from 1987 to 1994, when Center City took the biggest hit.

Not all the towns on the current winners' list have changed. Some communities - notably Wrightstown (up 37 percent), Solebury (down just 6 percent) and Upper Makefield (down 17 percent) in Bucks County - continue to command big prices because they are within easy commuting distance of New York City and central New Jersey, where housing costs trend higher.

Weichert Realtors agent Lisa Povlow, who handles everything from short sales and bank-owned foreclosures to million-dollar houses, said she has a client who wants to live in Solebury but is having trouble finding a house for the $800,000 her buyer is willing to spend.

Yet elsewhere in Bucks, Povlow said, she was able to negotiate a drop in price from $4.2 million to $1.5 million.

"I tell buyers and sellers that they have to be ready to move on offers," she said.

The locales with the biggest declines and lowest median prices haven't changed much, either: the Delaware County river towns, as well as Norristown and Coatesville, which "have structural, not cyclical, problems," said Kevin Gillen, vice president of Econsult, who collected and analyzed the data for this report.

"They are just in a long-term, slow-motion arc of decline, which just accelerates during recessions and slows during booms," Gillen said.

The towns with the highest median prices in 2011 are virtually the same as the ones that bore the distinction in four prior Inquirer home-price surveys (2007, 2004, 1999 and 1996). These perennial favorites continue to attract upper-end buyers - people who can still qualify for big mortgages. Thus, homes there become ever pricier.

Chadds Ford, Delaware County, for example, saw an 80 percent rise in median sale price between 2005 and second quarter 2011 - the largest increase anywhere in the Philadelphia region. The median price as of June 30 was $439,000, though the volume of sales was about half what it was in 2005.

Noelle Barbone, who manages Weichert Realtors' office in Media, lives in a house she and her husband built in Chadds Ford 15 years ago.

"Location says it," Barbone said: access everywhere by highway; an easy commute to Delaware jobs; "a semi-rural American town situated along the Brandywine Creek with rolling hills, beautiful views, and home to many historic sites ... and the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District."

Barbone moved from Edgmont, Delaware County, another high-price perennial, which saw its median price increase 56 percent over the period (2011 median price: $522,500).

Edgmont, at the edge of 2,400-acre Ridley Creek State Park, is near Newtown Square, home to ever-expanding SAP Americas and its high-paying jobs, which have spurred sales and a bit of construction recently - in a time short of both.

Today's buyers don't seem to want brand-new homes, just newer ones, 10 years old or less, said Prudential Fox & Roach associate broker John Badalamenti.

That's what they're finding in Collegeville, Montgomery County, whose median price increased 30 percent from 2005 to 2011, according to the sales-data analysis.

Badalamenti said most of the homes he's sold in the Collegeville area have been corporate relocations, and buyers "all seem to have the same general requirements: a decent amount of land and space between homes, good price points, easy access to all the major highways, schools, transportation, shopping and dining."

In other words, location first, followed by amenities, all at the price they want.

After six years of falling home values, "most sellers are still in denial about price," said Diane Williams, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Blue Bell, which keeps the number of sales down and prolongs the process.

In September, Williams said, she took clients to look at 13 houses. The couple were so excited about one, they made an offer over asking price with a $15,000 deposit.

They did not get the house.

In his Main Line market, John Duffy, owner of Duffy Real Estate, said he sees sellers giving in a bit, or "finally becoming realistic."

All is not uniform on the Main Line, though. Haverford, with its mix of housing stock, has been able, with a 2011 median of $298,000, to hold on to its price gains since 2005 amid consistently high numbers of sales.

Yet higher-priced, upper-end Radnor's median price as of June 30, $575,000, was $11,500 lower than its price in 2005, $586,500, amid substantially fewer sales.

"The median prices are easily skewed when you have a few very high-end homes sell one year and not the next, which has been the case in Radnor Township," Duffy said. "Haverford Township has fewer high-end properties."


Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, or @alheavens at Twitter.