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The Best Small Town in America

By Paul Harsch
iBerkshires Columnist

Everyone has their own favorite and usually it's the town they grew up in or live in, or at least I hope many can feel that way about where they live.

Take Williamstown for example. Is Williamstown the best small town in America? Here are some reasons to consider it just might be (and in future blogs I'll probably cover other towns and cities in the Berkshires and why they could be the best, too).

Reason 1.  The lack of traffic. Williamstown has none except when there's something big going on like the Williams alumni parade or fall alumni homecoming and those conditions last all of 15 minutes. Even on those rare occasions a driver can still drive the length of Main Street from the library in the west to the town line in the east in five minutes, give or take a minute, and pass through just one traffic light that is more often than not green as it changes only on demand.

Reason 2. You can dine out at any one of about 15 different restaurants and almost never have to wait for a table, how great is that? You can enjoy a unique dining experience every night for at least two weeks ranging from authentic Indian to sushi, to contemporary American, to a diner-style burger, to pub, to Mexican among others.

Reason 3. Williamstown has its own independent movie theater that shows a kaleidoscope of different films, most of which never hit the big commercial theaters.

Reason 4. Williams College. Awesome! Residents can attend athletic events, theater, use the college's outstanding facilities like the pool, squash and tennis courts, gym for modest fees or audit courses. This is no ordinary town thanks to the college and Williams, as is well known, is no ordinary college. Students are among the top in the nation. There is no wild fraternity scene or crazy behavior that some university towns have to deal with but instead the college attracts smart, hard-working, ambitious and outstanding students who for the most part are focused on their studies.

Reason 5. The scenery is some of the best in the nation. Any time of year it's just beautiful here. No, The Berkshires are not the Rockies or the Pacific coast but neither is there a dense urban environment. Here one enjoys plentiful natural beauty at your doorstep while for those needing an urban escape the big cities are only a few hours away.

Reason 6. The climate is terrific, too. Yes, we have winter, and what a wonderful time of year that is when those who enjoy winter sports are in their glory and residents can also turn indoors and get lots of good reading done and enjoy time by the fire. Spring and fall are spectacular seasons and, of course, summer, brief as it is, allows time for gardening, boating, golf, tennis, outdoor cultural events, hiking and basking in the summer sun.

Reason 7. The town is really clean. It's not that there isn't an occasional bit of litter around but by and large the residents are so happy with the way the town looks that they'll pick up a bit of trash and put it in its proper place. The water is clean, the air mostly clean (can't do much about what blows here from other parts of the country), the streets are clean and everyone keeps their properties looking really well maintained.

Reason 8. Part of this super town has to do also with the condition of things like the streets and availability of services. You would be hard pressed to ever find a pothole here (or to avoid one in major cities across the nation). Public services and employees from highway to police to volunteer firefighters are all dedicated and friendly (also hard to find in major cities). Medical services are outstanding and readily accessible, too.

Reason 9. The real estate is great because it is "just right." There is something that fits just about any budget and the median value is near the mid-range in the nation. This is neither a rich nor a poor town and there are residents who fit in just about every point of the spectrum from quite wealthy to those who need and receive support and help. Affordability has actually improved since the recession, so housing here is again much more affordable. The town has committed to building more affordable housing because to make it possible for as many who would like to live here to be able to do so.

Reason 10. No real need to go on vacation when you live in such a vacationlike location anyway.

Reason 11. A wonderful town for any age from excellent schools and pre-schools which are uncrowded and staffed by caring, dedicated and energetic adults. We also have a host of things for adults to do and enjoy, we have churches, we have all sorts of groups from Yoga to knitting, paddle tennis to bridge and we also have wonderful places for seniors to live in community if they choose that over living at home in their later years.

Reason 12. Maybe the most important reason to consider Williamstown as the best small town in America is the people. What a great bunch. Relatively open minded, committed to learning, committed to the quality of life here, interested in the arts, living a healthy life-style, showing consideration for others. This is not a fanatical bunch and the residents have a wide variety of interests and talents. Unlike a ski town for example where everyone is engaged in one way or another in that activity or a yachting community, Williamstown is home to a spectrum of different interests and education and learning are a prominent focus.

So there you have it, the 12 reasons why Williamstown is number one in my book (I hope everyone not fortunate enough to live here will write their own list about how they like their own town best). While Williamstown residents don't ever want to see the town become overcrowded they lay out the welcome mat for anyone else who cares to join this exceptional community. It's simply a great place to live!

Paul Harsch, president and founder of Harsch Associates, a Berkshire County based real estate brokerage firm, is a licensed real estate broker in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, serving a diverse residential, business, commercial and land client base for 40 years.

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The Froth Is Off

By Paul Harsch
iBerkshires Columnist

The economy is slowly regaining some strength as the unemployment rate continues to drop back (6.3 percent as of May) and factory production improves and consumer spending increases but while this is a good sign for the overall economy, housing itself has not and is not likely to "bounce back" as it has in previous recessionary times.

The froth is off the housing market and that is a very good thing. For now, the cycle of boom, bubble, bust seems to be broken for housing while massive money follows other avenues of making outsized profits.

In the case of housing, investors can only move the market so much and they did influence the moderate recovery in the last few years when major investment portfolios purchased thousands of foreclosed homes with the purpose of renting them out in the short term for investment returns and selling when the values rose once more.

What really moves the housing market broadly however is not Wall Street money but every day singles and families wanting their own homes. This part of the market was hit badly during the recession with thousands upon thousands of homeowners losing their homes due to job losses. That trend appears largely behind us and now as employment improves so too should the housing market.

There is one huge change however, that in effect, will prevent a return of the bubble days of the mid-2000s and that is demographics. Berkshire County is experiencing this trend in a significant manner and so too the rest of the nation with few exceptions. There are and always will be outlier markets where even demographics seem to be irrelevant such as New York City, San Francisco, Miami where foreign influx of high wealth individuals and scarcity of housing options will maintain exceptionally high prices. Aside from these however, in places like Williamstown, Lenox, Great Barrington and Stockbridge demographic trends have a significant impact on the overall market for real estate.

Changes in human behavior and production are also playing a significant role in patterns of preference. Americans appear eager, particularly the younger generations, to gravitate to the cities for the life style they offer, particularly as the cities have become more appealing with better transportation, lower crime, more attention given to quality of life, and diversity and quantity of job opportunities.

As for production, we are all too familiar with outsourcing overseas of our once robust manufacturing base in the US and here in Berkshire County in particular. With the departure of so many jobs, those needing employment who haven’t been able to convert to some sort of internet based career or to one of the remaining stable employers in the area have had little choice but to relocate to find employment.

The demographic trends are just as powerful if not more so, in their impact. The well documented aging of the baby boomer generation that is seeking to downsize if not to relocate altogether, is having a substantial effect on the housing market. Fewer new homes are being built and home prices are settling back to much more affordable levels. Of course there are always exceptions such as those occasional high end sales to second home buyers but those do not constitute the bread and butter of the market.

So the froth is off and now those of us fortunate enough to call the Berkshires home or who plan on doing so can count on much more affordable housing options which means the younger buyers entering the market for the first time have very affordable options now to look forward to and those wanting to trade up also have very realistic and manageable affordability to look forward to.

With the exception of the relatively small number of sellers who managed to sell at or around the peak in '07, the fact that things have returned to a more modest pace and much more affordable prices is good news for everyone else.  A good property presented effectively will still command a good price but with those few exceptions not counted, the rest will trade at sensible and "froth free" prices.

Paul Harsch, president and founder of Harsch Associates, a Berkshire County based real estate brokerage firm, is a licensed real estate broker in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, serving a diverse residential, business, commercial and land client base for 40 years.

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Do You Want to List Your property or Sell it?

By Paul Harsch
iBerkshires Columnist

If a seller places their property for sale on the market they absolutely want to sell.



Hiring a realtor, putting out the "for sale" sign, placing a "multiple listing service" entry, requesting that the agent do serious advertising and expecting the agent to schedule open houses all are part of placing a home on the market.   



All of the above activities indicate the owner wants to sell the property. Now comes the Catch 22.  The seller "must" have a certain price for their property. The individual reasons for selling a property are as diverse as the number of fish in the sea. A few of the more common reasons properties come to the market are downsizing, rightsizing, upgrading, moving to a new location, job transfer, inheriting an estate property, death of a spouse, birth of children, new job, retirement and moving a parent to assisted living.

A leading national real estate site also has a "make me move" section of properties where the owner can place any value on the property and wait to see if a buyer will pay that price.  Needless to say this section of properties remains the same year in and year out as the owner waits to win the lottery of real estate.  

Motivation to sell a property can range from the "lottery" example above to the urgent need to decrease the cost of living related to loss of a job. The most important factor that isn't represented in any of the information above is the buyer.

A buyer is interested in paying a fair price in a market where the choices are many. Buyers also are looking for value. Value is both objective and subjective at the same time. A good comparative market analysis can give the seller the objective value of a property. A realtor is not needed to obtain the subjective value of a property. A friend or family member can give the seller their opinion of the subjective value of the property (of course the friend or family member will not be buying the property).

Bankers who provide loans to buyers do so based solely on objective value. Apart from flippers and investors, approximately 90 percent of home buyers will obtain a mortgage and the property they make an offer on will be subject to an appraisal by a licensed appraiser. So a buyer may feel that the property is worth the price they offer (subjective) while the bank could still decline the loan based on appraised value (objective).

Properties can become "holding listings" when this happens. The seller ends up "holding" the property because the reality of appraised value does not match the need for obtaining the subjective value the seller desires. No amount of subjective need for a "price" will overcome the objective market value of a property.

When the seller's genuine goal is to sell the property the key is knowing what the objective value is.  Your realtor should always provide you with a printed Competitive Market Analysis showing all homes listed, sold, cancelled or expired unsold in your local area. Pay particular attention to the "sold" homes to find a range that will sell your property in a reasonable amount of time.

If your desire is to list your property and you don't care what the objective market value is or whether or not your property actually sells then you owe it to your realtor to share this fact. Your realtor will spend their time, their money and effort on the marketing your property. Enter into the relationship with your realtor trusting that if you price your home based on a subjective value the realtor, even with a valiant effort, cannot overcome the objective market value and your property will probably not sell if the difference between objective and subjective value is too great.

Ask yourself "do I want to list this property or do I want to SELL it?"

Paul Harsch, president and founder of Harsch Associates, a Berkshire County based real estate brokerage firm, is a licensed real estate broker in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, serving a diverse residential, business, commercial and land client base for 40 years.

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Paul Harsch, president and founder of Harsch Associates, a Berkshire County based real estate brokerage firm, is a licensed real estate broker in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, serving a diverse residential, business, commercial and land client base for 40 years. He has achieved personal career sales exceeding $131 million and company sales from 1979 will top $500 million in 2014. Harsch is a member of the Berkshire, Massachusetts, Southwestern Vermont and National associations of realtors, is a licensed Massachusetts real estate instructor and earned the CRB, CRS, GRI and CBI designations. Harsch is a 1969 graduate of Williams College.

To submit comments, questions or requests for future blog topics write him at paul@harschrealestate.com.

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