Home sales in Maine surge

October 22, 2013 in Articles

Author: Jessica Hall
Publication: Portland Press Herald

Sales of existing single-family homes in September rose almost 25 percent from last year.

Sales of existing single-family homes in Maine rose 24.59 percent in September, more than double the increase nationally.

click image to enlarge

A for sale sign is posted in front of a home on Fletcher Street in Kennebunk. Maine home sales jumped 24.59 percent in September 2013 over September 2012, doubling the pace seen nationally.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Statewide, 1,307 homes changed hands in September, up from 1,049 in September 2012, according to Maine Listings, a subsidiary of the Maine Association of Realtors.

The median sale price rose 1.76 percent, to $173,000. The median price is the point at which half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less.

The gains in September sales volume followed jumps of 20 percent in August and 31 percent in July, year over year.

The jump in Maine last month outpaced sales nationwide, where sales were up 10.9 percent in September. Nationally, the median sale price for an existing single-family home was $199,300 in September, 11.4 percent higher than a year ago.

In the Northeast, home sales jumped 15 percent, and the median sale price was up 2.3 percent, to $240,900.

“The extraordinarily busy summer season is beginning to wind down, and we now enter what many consider the second-busiest selling time of the year – fall,” said Bart Stevens, president of the Maine Association of Realtors. “Here in Maine, winter can sometimes be long, and many buyers want to be settled before the winter snows arrive. With continued low interest rates and plenty of inventory, this time of year is perfect for buyers.”

For the three months that ended Sept. 30, sales statewide rose 25.04 percent, to 4,239 homes, compared with 3,390 homes in the same three-month period of 2012. The biggest percentage gains came in Franklin, Lincoln and Knox counties.

In Cumberland and York counties, home sales over the three months rose 28.37 percent and 23.57 percent, respectively.

In the Portland area, limited inventory prompted buyers to act quickly in making purchase decisions, said Ed Gardner of Ocean Gate Realty and the Greater Portland Board of Realtors.

The Bangor area has more homes for sale, said Angelia Levesque of RE/MAX Advantage Realty Group in Bangor. “Fall is always a good time to buy. It’s always busy,” she said. “People want to be out of their home and into their new home before winter sets in.”

Nationally, homes are not selling as quickly as they did in the summer. A home’s median time on the market in September was 50 days, compared with 43 days in August. In September 2012, the time on market was more than 70 days, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The national association said higher home prices, stagnant salaries and rising mortgage rates are hurting affordability, which hit a five-year low in September, according to its gauge. The trade group said sales probably peaked in July and August.

Interest rates have risen sharply since May on expectations that the Federal Reserve will start cutting back on its monthly bond purchases this year, with the 30-year fixed mortgage rate surging nearly a full percentage point. It hit 4.49 percent in September, the highest since July 2011, according to Freddie Mac.

The National Association of Realtors’ affordability index measures whether a typical family earns enough to qualify for a mortgage loan on a typical home at the national and regional levels.

Economists said they expect national home sales rates to decline in October, in part because the 16-day government shutdown hurt consumer confidence and likely delayed the processing of mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

“It had gotten a little quieter during the shutdown. Next month’s numbers may show some effect, of course, but not a lot because fall is still a major buying season for us,” said Tina Lucas of Lucas Real Estate in Portland.

$12 million Portland housing proposal up for city approval

October 7, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND – Another 39 units of market-rate housing could soon be in store for the city's India Street neighborhood, a former industrial area nestled between the Old Port and Munjoy Hill.

Work continues on the Bay House development in Portland on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer


The Planning Board on Tuesday will hold a public hearing and vote on the Seaport Lofts, which would bring seven townhouses and 32 single-story units at Hancock and Newbury streets.

The estimated $12 million project is the second phase of the 86-unit Bay House development, which has been under construction over the last year.

Seaport Lofts would be built on what is now a parking lot at 133 Newbury St. The four-story building would consist of brick on the bottom half and metal siding on the top. Forty-three parking spaces would be included on site.

William Conway of Sebago Technics, a consulting firm representing the developer, said the plan being presented Tuesday is the project's fourth iteration. The changes have consisted of tweaks to the overall design, landscaping and stormwater systems, he said.

"In my view, any of the remaining issues are relatively minor in nature," Conway said.

The new units will further bolster the supply of market-rate housing on the east side of the city.

The Bay House development, consisting of 86 condominiums in two buildings at the site of the former Village Cafe is still months away from being finished, but 60 percent of the units are under contract.

Most of the tenants are baby boomers said Sandra Johnson, a broker at Town & Shore Associates, which is marketing the condos.

Half of the tenants are from Maine, she said.

"They're moving out of their suburban homes," Johnson said of the tenants. "They want to live within walking distance of the city's amenities."

Johnson said the most expensive unit at Bay House – a top-floor, three bedroom condo with a water view – has already been sold for $825,000.

One-bedroom condos are being marketed online starting at $295,000. Two bedrooms start at $380,000 and three bedrooms start at $585,000.

Johnson said the southernmost building, consisting of 42 units, should be finished by the end of the year, and the north building, consisting of 44 units, should be finished in January.

Up to six ground-floor retail units are being marketed along Middle Street. Prospective tenants, including a fitness center, are showing interest, but no leases have been signed, said Jennifer Small, an associate broker at Malone Commercial Brokers.

Bay House is 65 feet tall and has elevators and an underground parking garage for 80 vehicles. Parking lifts allowing one vehicle to park above the other are also available to tenants for an additional charge, Johnson said.

Building heights have been a source of concern for India Street residents.

Seaport Lofts will be 50 feet tall, the maximum allowed by zoning. It was originally part of a contract zone that would have allowed an additional 65-foot-tall building. However, that zone was amended last year by the City Council to remove the Seaport parcel.

The Bay House project was originally slated to get underway in 2008, but was delayed when the economic downturn and banking collapse made it impossible for the project to get financing.

The project was restarted last year, after the City Council granted developers an estimated tax break of $2.05 million over the next 20 years.

To receive financing, developers also agreed to turn one of the Bay House buildings into apartments if condo sales fell flat.

That, however, has not been a problem.

"It's been a pleasant surprise how well the units have been received," said Gordon Reger, the chairman and chief executive officer of Reger Holdings LLC, the New York investment firm spearheading the projects.

Maine home sales up 20% in August

September 23, 2013 in Articles

Publication: MaineBiz

The sales volume for single-family homes jumped 20% in August compared with the same period one year ago.

The latest figures from the Maine Real Estate Information System show real estate agents in the state sold 1,506 homes this year, compared with 1,255 in August 2012. The median price on those homes also rose compared with last year from $170,000 to $182,000.

The increases in home sales volume and median price in Maine outpaced regional and national trends for single-family homes. In New England, sales volume rose 12.7% and the median sales price rose 7.6% to $268,000.

Nationally, sales volume rose 12.8% in August and the median sales price rose to $212,200, a 14.4% increase, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Group of Old Port properties going on online auction block

September 23, 2013 in Articles

Author: J. Craig Anderson
Publication: Portland Press Herald
The commercial buildings at the corner of Fore and Wharf streets were foreclosed on in 2011.

A group of commercial properties on Fore and Wharf streets will hit the virtual auction block Monday, when the previously foreclosed-on buildings' loan servicer will attempt to sell them online.

Image provided by Cardente Real Estate shows the Old Port properties that will be auctioned online.

The block of properties in the Old Port, comprising 432, 434, 436 and 446 Fore St. and 42 and 50 Wharf St. totals just under 50,000 square feet of restaurant/bar, residential and retail space. Commercial tenants include Buck's Naked BBQ, Oasis, Fore Play, Gorgeous Gelato, Pearl Lounge, Merry Table, Ollo Salon, Blazin Ace, 51 Wharf Street Restaurant and Shine Salon.

Participation in the 48-hour auction, which begins Monday at noon on auction.com, requires a deposit of $25,000 and a minimum bid of $2 million. One of the properties' brokers, Michael Cardente of Portland-based Cardente Real Estate, said he did not know whether the seller has set a reserve price for the auction. A reserve price is the price below which the seller will decline to sell. It is higher than the minimum bid and rarely disclosed.

Cardente said the seller, a limited-liability company called BACM 2007-3 Wharf Street LLC, had not previously listed the properties for sale.

BACM's parent company, Florida-based LNR Property LLC, prefers to sell properties via auction, he said. "We were hired specifically to market these properties for auction," Cardente said.

LNR is what's known as a "special servicer," a company that facilitates the repayment of delinquent commercial real estate loans that have been divided into tranches and sold off to investors as commercial mortgage-backed securities. It has a sister company, LNR Partners, that is responsible for selling properties that have been foreclosed on.

The properties in the Old Port were foreclosed on by LNR and put up for auction in 2011, but no third-party buyer was willing to beat the special servicer's bid of $5.9 million. The previous owner had purchased the block of properties in 2007 for $8.3 million but later defaulted on the loan.

Portland plaza turns into flash point

September 17, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

The debate over Congress Square's underused park seems to go beyond the fight on open space to issues of rich vs. poor and corporate intrusion.

PORTLAND - When the City Council meets Monday to decide whether to sell a section of Congress Square Plaza to an out-of-state developer, many observers will see more at stake than the plaza's fate.

The space at Congress and High streets, which started out holding a wooden row house, has undergone many changes over the years. Walgreen’s replaced the row house, and Dunkin’ Donuts moved in later. In the 1980s, the space was converted into a plaza.

Evening Express and Press Herald file photos


Those with opposing views see the deal for the nearly half-acre concrete plaza at Congress and High streets as either a symbol of all that's wrong in the world or an opportunity to bolster Portland's economy.

The debate is about gentrification -- sweeping homeless people (or people who appear homeless) out of view to make way for a shiny building and affluent people.

It's about preserving a public space for civic discourse and maintaining Portland's history of creating and valuing open spaces.

It's about economic development, turning a liability into a tax-producing asset that provides jobs.

For the more radical factions, like the handful of remaining Occupy Maine members, it's about corporate welfare and corporate domination of working men and women. It's about backroom deals, perceived corrupt politicians and even the subversion of democracy.

All of that has led to shouting matches, public demonstrations and an attempt to start a petition drive.

But it all begs the question: What is really going on?

"I just can't seem to get my arms around it," said Cheryl Leeman, one of two city councilors who say they are undecided on the deal. "Something has gone amok."

The other undecided councilor, Jill Duson, who is up for re-election in November, did not return a call for comment.


The council is expected to vote Monday on whether to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital. The developer wants to build a single-story event center there as an addition to the former Eastland Park Hotel, which it is renovating. The deal would leave 4,800 square feet for a new public plaza.

The dispute appears to be centered on process -- too much process for supporters of the sale, not enough for opponents, and not the right kind of process for independent observers.

For years, the city has been studying ways to fix what most agree is a failed, underused public space.

Rockbridge Capital ran into opposition last year when it presented a plan to develop the entire plaza. It returned this spring with a scaled-down proposal.

Bruce Wennerstrom, who has been representing the developer in its negotiations with the city, says he has held meetings with about 30 residents, neighborhood groups and professional associations.

"In my opinion, it has been a very thorough and complete process, giving everyone a chance to weigh in," said Wennerstrom, who will manage the renovated hotel when it reopens in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. "Now it's time to vote and move on."

Opponents, however, criticize a series of closed-door meetings between the developer and the council's Housing and Community Development Committee to negotiate the sale. When an agreement was reached, the committee quickly recommended passage to the council. The agreement sets an aggressive timeline for the project to move forward.

Frank Turek, president of the Friends of Congress Square Park, a nonprofit group that opposes the sale, says a community-led process that concluded the downtown space should be redesigned entirely was usurped.

The city was prepared to spend $50,000 to redesign the plaza, but withheld the call for proposals when Rockbridge Capital bought the adjacent hotel. City officials have acknowledged that they approached the company to ask whether it was interested in developing the space.

"With Congress Square Park, there has never been any indication that the city had a desire to be rid of the property," Turek said. "It was never anyone's intention to sell the park until Rockbridge came on the scene."

Turek says the sale will set a precedent for selling other public spaces in favor of development.


Jack Kartez, a professor of community planning and development at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service, said it's important to have the right type of process -- one that genuinely engages all stakeholders, whether they're developers, residents or business owners.

"There's a very complex constituency downtown," Kartez said.

In addition to merchants and students downtown, there are many people who rely on public assistance and spend their time on the street.

Many elderly and disabled people who live in the Congress Square Plaza apartment complex have testified that the plaza is one of the few places they can congregate.

According to the 2010 census and the 2011 American Communities Survey, nearly 8,400 residents live in neighborhoods -- Parkside, West Bayside, the downtown and the West End -- around Congress Square.

An average of about 4,000 vehicles a day passed through the intersection of Congress and High streets in 2010, according to data from the Maine Department of Transportation.

Mayor Michael Brennan has said the intersection is a gateway to the city that can shape people's opinions of Portland as a whole.

Ethan Kent, a representative with the national Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit that helps communities create dynamic public spaces, visited Portland in June at the request of the Friends of Congress Square Park.

Kent, a graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said in an interview that the proposal to sell and develop the plaza has become a flash point because the process began with a specific development proposal, rather than a broad community vision for that corner.

"The current discussion is unfortunately rather divisive -- you're either for it or against it. You can only react to it," Kent said in June.

Charles Colgan, chairman of the Community Planning and Development Department at the Muskie School of Public Service, said open space takes on a greater significance on Portland's peninsula, which is heavily developed.

Also, many Mainers have a "longstanding suspicion" of out-of-state companies -- let alone a multinational corporation like Rockbridge Capital -- coming in and proposing major changes, Colgan said.

"When you combine the normal issues of contested public space with suspicions of out-of-state developers, you get a pretty volatile mixture," he said.


The first building to occupy what is now the plaza was a wooden row house constructed in the mid-19th century, said State Historian Earl Shettleworth. In the 1940s, the wooden row houses were torn down and a Walgreen's was built. In 1971, Dunkin' Donuts took over a portion of the space. It quickly became popular with prostitutes and vagrants.

Several years later, the City Council expressed a desire to clean up the area. The council eventually seized the former Dunkin' Donuts building through eminent domain and razed it. In the early 1980s, the city secured a $7.3 million federal grant to convert the former building site into a plaza.

The city worked with community partners to hold events in the park and provided annual funding, but the events never became self-funding, and by 2002 no funds were allocated to a group that coordinated the events.

In 2008, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group was created. It recommended redesigning the park and keeping it as an open space, before the Rockbridge proposal surfaced.


Portland, which has a strong Buy Local program, has a penchant for shunning corporations downtown.

When a Hooters restaurant and bar was proposed on Congress Street in 2008, the city nearly passed a hotly debated ordinance that would have banned chain businesses from the downtown.

"You've got some people who just want to stick it to 'the man,'" said Chris O'Neil, who represents the Portland Community Chamber, which supports the sale and redevelopment of Congress Square Plaza. "It's taken on the trappings of a panic, a mob or a frenzy."

David Wagner, a professor of social work at USM who opposes the sale, said the issue has become a battle between rich and poor members of society.

He said Congress Square is symbolic of what he sees as the city's effort to sweep people "who are not aesthetically pleasing" out of the commercial center.

Then there is the "ludicrousness" of the proposed sale price -- nearly $524,000 -- to a corporation that can afford to pay much more, he said.

"For a number of groups, it has hit a nerve," said Wagner.

If the council agrees to the sale, the debate is expected to rage on.

The Friends of Congress Square Park hoped to collect signatures for a referendum that would ask voters to make it harder to sell and develop 35 public open spaces, including Congress Square.

On Friday, the city attorney rejected that effort, saying citizens cannot initiate a referendum over fiscal matters, including the sale of real estate.

The Friends of Congress Square Park are considering challenging that decision in court.

To view additional media materials via original article: http://www.pressherald.com/news/plaza-turns-into-flash-point_2013-09-16.html?pagenum=3




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