You can’t put lipstick on a pig, so here’s the bad news: Taken as a whole, the Twin Cities real-estate market looks bleak. But sift the details and you may be surprised by the number of home sales and home seekers in the metro. In fact, your residence may be holding its value because you live in a community with low taxes, safe streets, or lots of green space. What’s your house worth? How does your city stack up? Read on. And check out the guide to residential real estate to see how sales around the Cities are going.
Best Place to Sell
Residents in almost every city in Anoka County saw double-digit slides in home prices last year. But Oak Grove, a community of roughly 8,500 people in the northern reaches of the county, stood out. The median sale price softened only 4 percent from 2007 to 2008—a palatable blow, compared to the falloff seen elsewhere in the Twin Cities. The median home sale in Oak Grove in 2008 was $249,900, and, on average, sellers got roughly 92 percent of what they were originally asking.
Carver hasn’t changed much since it was established in 1852. It remains quiet and small—an enclave of just 2,800 people, largely untouched by the development boom that has transformed nearby Chaska and Chanhassen from farm towns into bedroom communities. But last year, Carver outshined its neighbors—at least in terms of residential real-estate: The median sale price of a home in Carver actually rose 4 percent over the previous year, to $288,500. But people in small Midwestern towns like this tend to be skeptical of all good news. Some were probably disappointed by the fact that sellers, generally speaking, got only 94 percent of their asking price.
You may have heard of Sunfish Lake, but you’ve probably never visited or considered moving there. Why? Because only 500 people live in the bucolic burg, and last year the median sale price for a home in the tiny 1.7-square-mile community, located south of St. Paul, was $1,051,250 (down only a smidge from the previous year). Can’t afford that? Nearby Mendota is a tad more affordable: The city’s single 2008 sale fetched a cool million bucks.
The median sale price in Woodland, a coveted strip of shoreline on the east end of Lake Minne-tonka, was $2.5 million in 2008. That’s more than double the handshake sum for homes in Tonka Bay, Sunfish Lake, and Mendota, the only other Twin Cities communities where the median sale price for last year topped $1 million. But properties don’t go on the market very often in Woodland, says Carl Zinn, an agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet who focuses on the Lake Minnetonka area: The Woodland property that sold for $2.5 million hadn’t changed hands in decades. And it was one of just three properties sold in Woodland in 2008.
If you can find a house for sale in Arden Hills, chances are the seller has mixed feelings about leaving. “It’s a very tight community,” says Ann Hermes, an Edina Realty agent with a focus on Ramsey County. Located just north of Roseville, it’s a suburb known for its wooded lots and winding streets filled with mostly single-family dwellings. The population ranges in age, says Hermes, but it’s particularly attractive to young families, drawn by a strong school system. Sellers saw the median sale price for residences rise 5 percent last year, but at $250,000, it’s an amount that’s still affordable to many homebuyers.
Credit River Township
The area just east of Prior Lake is dominated by rolling hills, small lakes, and picturesque woods. It also abuts Legends Golf Club and lies within the bounds of the high-performing Lakeville School District. All of which may explain why enormous homes continue to spring up on two- and three-acre parcels in the area and in high-end developments like Crest View. Only four homes sold in Credit River last year, but the median sale price was a whopping $632,137. And sales of existing homes only tell part of the story, says agent Maria McDonald-Zang, with Re/Max Home Realty in Prior Lake: New homes built for committed buyers, which aren’t generally listed, also continue to mushroom in the area.
Astonishingly, nearly a third of the cities in Washington County saw an increase in median home values last year. Dellwood, an exclusive enclave that is reputedly the home of former governor Jesse Ventura, topped the list for highest average price, with 13 sales garnering a median price of $750,000, an uptick of 30 percent over the previous year. But nearby Mahtomedi may be a better statistical indicator of the luck had by residents in that corner of Washington County. Eighty homes changed hands in Mahtomedi in 2008, fetching a median sale price of $297,000—an 11-percent jump over the previous year. Surely that city’s residents were happier than those in St. Paul Park, where nearly the same number of sales yielded a 19-percent decline in price.
Downtown Minneapolis and Lowry Hill, or what’s known in Realtor-speak as “Central,” recorded the highest median sale price in Minneapolis–St. Paul proper. On average, sellers in the neighborhood, which includes hundreds of gleaming new condos as well as avenues lined with stately old homes, got $275,945 for their properties. Additionally, Central’s prices didn’t soften much over the course of the year, dropping just 1 percent. More good news for those looking to offload a downtown condo: Residences in Central tended to spend fewer days on the market than the average Minneapolis home—just 106 days, versus 128. (One final note: Central also outperformed St. Paul’s highest-priced neighborhood, Macalester–Groveland, where the median sale price for a home was $266,250. That figure was down roughly 4 percent, from the 2007 price of $276,000.)
5 TIPS FOR SELLERS
1. TOUR THE COMPETITION
Check out the other homes on the market in your area. “Does your home look better than others in your price point?” asks Edina Realty agent Marian Peterson. If you don’t stand out, lower the sale price.
2. SPRUCE UP—INSIDE AND OUT
Dust off the furnace. Paint the basement floor. Re-stain the deck. (Outdoor spaces are increasingly important to buyers.) And don’t forget about first impressions. “The front door is key,” says Steve Havig, president of
the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors. “No torn screens or peeling paint!”
3. LEAVE NOTHING TO THE IMAGINATION
Put out pictures that show your property at its best. Buyers visiting on a rainy day won’t necessarily grasp how great it looks in sunlight or when the apple tree is in bloom.
4. DON’T INFLATE THE PRICE
Price your home competitively from the start. If you aim too high, says Jim Tice, a sales manager with Century 21 Luger Realty, the home will languish on the market till you wise up.
5. BE FLEXIBLE
“If a buyer calls and wants to see the house in 10 minutes,” says Peterson, “you’ve got to be willing to show it.”
Best Place to Raise a Family
Measured on a per-person basis, Lakeville has less crime, fewer traffic accidents, and fewer fires than most cities half its size. Its crime rate is the eighth-lowest among Twin Cities communities reporting figures to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. And, according to figures tracked by the Department of Public Service, the number of fire calls and traffic accidents are also low, at least if you factor in the size of the city’s population. And Lakeville looks after its kids: Nearly 55 percent of all households contain at least one youngster, and the city’s schools consistently rank high among the state’s finest. All of which may explain why young families flock to this suburb.
Best Place to Save on Your Taxes
The residents of this small burg had the lowest effective tax rate of 113 metro-area cities studied by researchers at the St. Paul–based Citizens League. A resident owning a home worth $414,016, the average market value in the community, paid $3,367 in city, county, school, and other local taxes in 2008. That might sound like a lot, but the effective tax rate was just .813 percent—a figure that might especially inspire envy among citizens in Carver, where the effective tax rate was 1.39 percent—the highest in the metro.
Best Place to Commune with Nature
The motto of the city of Columbus is “Rural Nature. Urban Access.” It’s a straightforward slogan whose first part proves more than true. Some 34 percent of the land within city limits is devoted to parks, nature preserves, wetlands, or some other form of greenspace, making it the most “wild” place to live in the metro, based on an analysis of 2005 Met Council data. With 2.6 acres of such greenspace per resident—10,482 acres total—there’s more than enough nature to go around.
Best Place to Hobnob with Millionaires
Among the four communities where the median price topped $1 million last year, Tonka Bay saw the highest number of new listings: 70. The other three communities in that elite million-dollar club may have had swanker offerings, but the pickings were slimmer: Woodland had just 9 new listings in 2008, Sunfish Lake had 24, and Mendota just 6. Tonka Bay, in contrast, offered well-heeled buyers ample opportunity to find the palace of their dreams. Or, at the very least, the rambler that’s next door to their sugarplum chateau.
Best Place to Drive a Hard Bargain
Cheese ripens. Wine ages. And in Independence, the typical property languishes on the market for 231 days—acquiring the kind of musty scent that signals to buyers that the home is overpriced or no one’s interested. Either way, the buyer is at an advantage: There’s a good chance that a shrewd purchaser can cut a deal—especially if a homeowner needs to sell. Last year, the average buyer managed to get nearly 13 percent shaved off the
original offering price.
Best Place for First-time Homebuyers
As foreclosures have flooded the market with affordable homes on the North Side, prospective first-time homebuyers have taken notice of the low prices. But finding a gem will take considerable effort and a “hardy” constitution, says Emily Green, of Sandy Green Realty. The area isn’t as crime-ridden and blighted as the nightly news suggests, but the condition of homes priced under $100,000 often can be startling. And big problems—a broken radiator system, for example—may make it impossible to find financing. Still, Green says patient and diligent shoppers who are committed to living in the area will eventually discover a jewel: “If you are a buyer approved for $150,000, you can find a very nice house.”
5 TIPS FOR BUYERS
1. SHOP AROUND FOR AN AGENT
Find an agent who has worked in your desired area for some time. They should know where the parks, highways, schools, and commercial centers are. “You deserve an agent who knows your target neighborhood,” says Marian Peterson, an agent with Edina Realty.
2. EXPECT TO PUT SOME MONEY DOWN
Many buyers are being asked to put 15 to 20 percent down. If you’ve got a decent credit score, however, you’ll probably be able to put down less.
3. DON’T ASSUME YOU CAN BARGAIN
Most sellers are pricing their properties fairly from the start in order to get them to move. Lowballing your offer won’t help, says Ellen Beecher, a Coldwell Banker Burnet agent. “The seller can only go so low if it’s fairly listed.
4. CASE THE ‘HOOD
Follow the school buses around to see where kids get dropped off. Spend a morning at the local Starbucks. Shop the local grocery. You’ll get a better feel for the neighborhood.
5. BACK YOUR OFFER WITH RESEARCH
Find an agent who can do comparisons with other properties. “If you’re gonna go 20 percent lower than the asking price, you better have reasons,” says Peterson.
Best Place for Men Seeking Women
Apple Valley ties with Roseville when it comes to prospects for men seeking women: 60 percent of all single, divorced, or widowed individuals in the community are female, according to a 2007 study called the American Community Survey (ACS). But sift the figures more finely and you’ll see that a bache-lor would be wiser to settle in Apple Valley. Apple Valley has some 9,850 potentially eligible single females—almost 1,200 more ladies than you’ll find in Roseville.
Best Place for Women Seeking Men
It’s a small place. But when it comes to the mating game, women have the upper hand. Men comprise 55 percent of the all single, divorced, or widowed individuals in community.
Best Place for Seniors
Edina and Roseville share the honor of being of the Grayest Communities in the Twin Cities: 35 percent of households in each city have one or more people who are 65 or older, according to an analysis of 2007 American Community Survey data. But Edina garnered an attractive edge on the competition last year with the opening of the Westin Edina Galleria, a condo-hotel development that provides its permanent inhabitants with all the amenities of a Starwood Resort experience. Ellen Beecher, an agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet, says many of the residents filling the Westin and other condo developments have lived in Edina for years but now wish to downsize. “They love the small community, the access to the medical centers, highways, restaurants, golf courses,” Beecher says. “They don’t want to leave.”
3 TIPS ON REMODELING FOR LONG-TERM VALUE
1. BE CONSISTENT
“If you’re remodeling an old house, it’s important to stay true to the period of the house,” says real-estate agent Tanya Hietpas. This is especially vital in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where homes range considerably in age. Research the style of your residence and find out what makes it fit that look. Polishing up the particulars—stained glass, unique fixtures—will make it more attractive to future buyers.
2. RE-DO THE DETAILS
Spend your money on high-end finishes that will capture attention. Shawn Nelson, president of New Spaces, a Burnsville remodeling company, suggests adding custom cabinets to a kitchen space or replacing conventional light fixtures with art-glass models. Small, inexpensive changes can often have more impact than larger ones like, say, moving a wall.
3. GO GREEN
Investing in increased energy efficiency can pay off in spades, says Nelson, both before and during a sale. Install adequate insulation in the attic. Add storm panels on windows and replace doors. Swap power-hogging appliances with Energy Star–rated ones. The payoff will be noticeable.
Joel Hoekstra is the managing editor of Minnesota Monthly.
* Download a comprehensive five-page chart (pdf) detailing what homes are worth in more than 180 Twin Cities communities.