Mark Lovewell


All the Presidents’ Houses

It was a big year for big-name sales. But the story of the year actually starts at the bottom of the market.

As celebrity listings go, 2019 was a pretty remarkable year. One iconic, sprawling property with presidential ties was put on the market, and an honest-to-goodness presidential presence landed on the shores of Edgartown Great Pond.

Actually, the almost thirty-acre property former president Barack Obama and his family purchased in December for $11.75 million had additional newsmaker status. The sellers were Wycliffe and Corrine Grousbeck, the Boston Celtics owners who originally listed the spread for $22.5 million in 2015. (Half price is still half price, whatever the stratosphere.)

Up in Aquinnah, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg listed the 340 acres her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, purchased in 1978 for $1.1 million. This time around, the Schlossbergs set an opening price tag of $65 million. While that makes it unreachable to all but the oligarchs, it includes one mile of Atlantic shorefront and saddles up to the western banks of Squibnocket Pond. Spectacular does, indeed, come at a cost.

The year started off with yet another transaction with a connection to a past president: the January 2019 sale of the late Katharine Graham’s 186-acre estate, Mohu, in West Tisbury for $32.5 million. Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post, is perhaps best remembered for giving the green light to that newspaper’s Watergate investigation. It was the largest single property transaction that year – by a significant margin. The next closest sales were less than half that much at just over $14 million and $13 million, both in Edgartown.

Big-name transactions aside, how did the Island real estate market fare in 2019? One measure of sales is the amount of money generated by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, which collects a two percent fee on most property sales from the buyer. In 2019 land bank revenues rose 13 percent over the prior year, for a total of $14.45 million. The Mohu sale alone sent $650,000 its way.

And yet those numbers can be misleading. With inventory still on the low and static side (particularly in properties priced at $1.5 million and below), the number of transactions was actually down for the year, though the closing price went up. There were 387 residential sales last year, 9 percent below the 424 in 2018. Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury residential numbers dipped, but in each case, the average price was up: 48 percent higher in Edgartown, 13 percent in Oak Bluffs, and 81 percent in West Tisbury – those higher percentages skewered by the few high-end sales.

Edgartown and Oak Bluffs still lead the pack, with 118 and 106 residential sales, respectively, followed by eighty-one in Vineyard Haven. Aquinnah had a big year with ten transactions, a 25 percent jump from the previous year, with an average selling price of about $1.6 million, slightly higher than 2018. Chilmark saw thirty residential sales, a 15 percent jump, with a median sales price of almost $1.46 million, a 6 percent drop from the previous year. Vineyard Haven was a bit more contained, showing modest increases: there were eighty-one sales with a median price of a little less than $800,000.

Island-wide, the median sales price climbed to $875,000, a 9 percent bump over $802,500 in 2018, while average sales prices climbed more than 30 percent, from slightly more than $1.3 million to more than $1.7 million. (An average price higher than the median price suggests some of the really big sales may be pulling the median up.) For sellers there was more good news: they got 95 percent of their asking price.

According to Sean D. Federowicz, broker/owner for Coldwell Banker Global Luxury, the Vineyard’s residential realty market over the past five years has been about, surprise, supply and demand. Real estate agents have long regarded properties priced at $1.5 million or less as the bread and butter of their business, but inventory has been tight in that sector of the market. The resulting increase in prices not only affects the seasonal buyer, but also the year-rounder looking for a way into the market.  

Federowicz says he sees 2015 as the watershed year when the Island market finally rebounded from the recession. In those early few years, all sectors of the market participated in the recovery. But in the last couple of years, the more expensive properties have begun to move more slowly, creating pressure in the lower end of the market.

“The rate of consumption in the last five years is what’s pushing the prices,” he says. “Our inventory is getting squeezed on the low end, but there’s still some choice there for the discreet, less urgent buyer. It explains why unit prices are staying high or improving over time: it’s high demand and low supply. Sellers can afford to push the price within reason.”

Low-rate mortgages also contributed to the price surge. Federowicz says the rise in conventional home-loan limits, from $510,400 to $765,000 before jumbo mortgage rates kick into place, bodes well for sales in 2020. “This upward adjustment,” he wrote in a year-end analysis for his firm, “may positively affect eligible buyers’ purchase power and thus enable considering a wider range of properties to purchase on Island.”

Since we’re at the start of a new decade, it’s of some interest to look back at 2009, when the real estate market here was beginning to feel the pain of a nationwide recession. (By most accounts, the impact on the Vineyard was delayed by twelve to eighteen months, which meant the 2007 panic began to hit home in the 2008-to-2009 market.)

In that year there were 252 single-family residences sold, with the lowest prices ranging from $150,000 to $242,000. The highest price was $11,750,000, for a North Water Street home in Edgartown. The median price of a single home? Just $557,500.  

Still, some things never change. The Vineyard seasonal market, says Federowicz, has often been what he calls a “legacy” purchase. It’s where “people use the Vineyard as a place where the family can congregate and reconnect and celebrate. It’s part of the buyer’s decision-making process and part of what separates us from other places.”

As for where the value is, Federowicz says it’s more east to west: both Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven still have some decent values. “And there’s been an interesting shift. Edgartown can afford Chilmark and Chilmark can afford Edgartown, but people make subjective decisions,” he adds.  

The rush on Edgartown and particularly Katama continues. Why? Federowicz thinks he knows the answer. “Parents have decided they don’t want to be a taxi service to their kids. So people start looking up-Island, but then they start looking closer to town and the village. They don’t want to spend twenty-five minutes in the car.”