Francis and Barbara Smith have called Thomas Fox Drive in North Tonawanda their home for 27 years.
The Western New York natives, who grew up in the post-World War II years, built the Cape Cod home in 1987 for about $130,000. They raised their daughter, who now lives in Florida, in the house. They put in a pool and gardens, and fixed things as needed. And they entertained friends, family and neighbors.
Now, after their daughter adopted a baby girl, they’re ready to scale back and perhaps even move to the Sunshine State to be closer to family. So they’ve listed their house for $218,900 – more than they expected but not a huge gain after their expenses. But making a profit has never been the goal for them.
“It’s somewhat of an investment, but mostly, it’s just been home,” said Barbara Smith, 70. “We’ll make a little bit of money but not a lot. But if you break even or make a little bit of money, you’re doing very well.”
That essentially sums up Buffalonians’ attitude toward homes – as a cost, a necessity or a desire, but not a personal Wall Street investment house.
“We don’t treat our homes as financial instruments, but more of a thing that we live in,” said Gary Keith, M&T Bank Corp.’s chief economist. “We take advantage of the fact that prices tend to be affordable, aside from the taxes. It’s an older market, typically, that is driven more by buying a home and staying in it for many years.”
Take Annabelle Aquilina and her husband, Tom, who bought their home in Amherst 30 years ago. They raised four children, all of whom are now married and living in the area, and over time they have “put on lots of additions and done a lot of things to grow with our family,” she said.
“We never really thought about looking at our house as any huge investment, but we also don’t have to worry about losing value either,” said Annabelle Aquilina, also the broker who is representing the Smiths. “It’s a place where you can just feel comfortable staying. I don’t want to move.”
Indeed, that’s borne out by data showing only mild changes in value over time in the Buffalo area, as people tend not to move that often, so properties don’t change hands frequently.
In part, that’s because while 30 percent of many other markets might consist of second-home buyers, “nobody buys a house in Buffalo as a second home,” so no one is driving prices artificially high, said Merle Whitehead, CEO of RealtyUSA. Rather, he said, “most of the sales in Western New York are change-of-life sales.”
“We have investors, but 98 percent of our single-family homes are being bought for quality of life,” he said. “It’s just a good place to live and raise a family, and you will get mild appreciation and principal reduction and tax advantages. So buying a house in Western New York makes a lot of sense.”
According to a new analysis by a national housing research firm done for Bloomberg.com, Buffalo has the most stable housing market in the nation over the last 35 years, with virtually no chance of loss for homeowners overall during that time.
The study of average home price data by Zillow found Buffalo beat out the 49 other largest metropolitan areas in the country for having the least risky real estate market since 1979. That’s based on an examination of over 117 rolling five-year periods since then, with Buffalo tallying the lowest percentage – estimated at zero – of those periods with negative returns.
The data represents another nod to Buffalo’s slow-and-steady market, which doesn’t experience housing booms but also doesn’t suffer busts.
Prices don’t rise that rapidly, but also don’t fall precipitously or bounce around. According to the study, the region’s worst 12-month period over the 35 years occurred from July 1994 to June 1995, when prices fell 4 percent.
Instead, home prices in Western New York have maintained a consistent but gradual rise for years, even through the depths of the national housing crash and recession. As a result, local homeowners don’t worry about losing money on their home.
Phil Aquila and his wife bought a 15-acre horse farm in Akron 30 years ago for $56,000, complete with a home built in 1890 and an Amish-built barn. He knows the property is now worth $300,000, in part because “people are always looking for horse farms and acreage,” but the couple still owns six horses and isn’t interested in moving.
“We did not view it as an investment but that’s a bonus to have that kind of appreciation over 30 years,” said Aquila, who is also general manager of residential real estate for M.J. Peterson Corp. “We needed a place that we enjoyed with some acreage and a big barn. We fulfilled our need and also, because of the Buffalo area, had a very safe, sound investment that we didn’t have to worry about.”
Peter Hunt, CEO and owner of Hunt Real Estate Corp., bought his own house in February 1987, and he and his wife raised their children there, only recently selling it to buy another house five blocks away that they really wanted. He acknowledged being “at least somewhat conscious of its market value” during his 27 years of ownership, but still invested in it, “with really no intention of ever selling it.”
“It’s a typical Buffalo story,” he said. “Mostly, we improved it contemplating only staying there, as it was the neighborhood we wanted for our family.”