By Rebecca Knight
Portland, Maine, is one of those idyllic American cities. With a population of nearly 65,000, it’s not too big and not too small. It’s clean and safe and has plenty of culture: a symphony orchestra, an acclaimed art museum and more restaurants per capita than most cities in the US. And that’s not to mention the fact that it’s within 30 miles of some of the most beautiful beaches and forests on the east coast.
There’s no question that Portland has been “discovered”; it is often written up in glossy magazines as one of the best small cities in the US in which to live. But there is one pocket that homebuyers are only just starting to notice. Munjoy Hill, situated at the north-eastern end of Portland’s peninsula, is without a doubt, its most up-and-coming area.
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Almost exclusively residential, the neighbourhood overlooks the downtown and harbour to the south and the city’s Back Cove to the west, encircled by the Eastern Promenade, a series of grassy fields and public gardens that slopes down to picturesque Casco Bay.
Gordon Smith, a native San Franciscan, moved to Portland last year from Washington, DC. He chose to live in Munjoy Hill because he wanted to be in a place where “you had a sense of being close to the water”. “From my house, I hear the seagulls, I hear the foghorns and I have views of Back Cove and the city,” he says. “Being close to the water was really important to me.”
“Portland is getting a good deal of attention as a city that’s got a high quality of life,” says Kathryn Townsend of Townsend Real Estate. “And the Munjoy Hill neighbourhood, with its many parks and tennis courts, is good example of why that’s so. It’s for people who want a healthy lifestyle, like the outdoors, like to walk a lot and want to live in a place with a real sense of community.”
The area also offers easy access to The Old Port Exchange, a district known for its cobblestone streets, 19th-century brick buildings and fishing piers. Today, it is filled with trendy shops, vintage boutiques, restaurants and bars.
John Hatcher, an estate agent with Keller Williams Realty, says that Munjoy Hill is a “city neighbourhood with a distinctly small- town feel. It’s for those who want a less hectic urban lifestyle and that don’t want cookie-cutter suburbia. They want to be near the restaurants and shops in the Old Port but not at the expense of privacy and space.”
Munjoy Hill itself has also become decidedly hip. Funky, new restaurants such as The Front Room and The Blue Spoon have opened up, as well as new pubs such as Snug and gourmet coffee bars like North Star Café. “It’s got a good vibe, a cool culture,” says John Herrigel, an agent with Green Tree Realty. “It’s a neighbourhood for the younger crowd. It’s a great place to live in your late 20s and early 30s.”
This is a recent development. Even just a decade ago, Munjoy Hill was shabby and rough around the edges, according to Herrigel. “It used to be an area you wouldn’t want to walk around in at night,” he says.
But over the past few years local developers and savvy property buyers have snapped up the Victorian and Greek-revival-style properties and completed massive renovations inside and out. They’ve gutted the interiors, refinished wooden floors, added luxury finishes and installed new granite counters and stainless steel appliances. On the exterior, they’ve removed the scruffy aluminum and vinyl siding, and restored them to their original clapboard.
Smith, a lawyer, bought a three-storey, classic New England house earlier this year. A former carpenter, he is now in the process of renovating it. “I wanted a ‘project house’ in a sought-after neighbourhood where I could put in a lot of quality work and that that would be reflected in the resale price,” he explains.
If current trends continue, Smith will not be disappointed. While real-estate listing services do not break out data for particular neighbourhoods within Portland, the price trend for the city is moving upward. (And Munjoy Hill tends to be more expensive than Portland as a whole, according to local estate agents.)
For instance, a restored three-bedroom condominium on Morning Street, one block from the Eastern Promenade with water views from the back deck, was sold in September of 2001 for $168,000. It was sold again in August 2005 for $369,000, a 120 per cent increase, according to Hatcher, who worked on both sales.
Another modest, single-family home on Munjoy Hill sold in 2002 for $110,000 and was sold again in 2006 for $180,000, a 64 per cent increase, says Herrigal.
According to data from Multiple Listing Service and the Maine Real Estate Information System, for the month of July, the average price of a single-family home in the city of Portland was $255,588, while in 2005 single-family homes in the city went for $243,438. In 2004 that number was $229,900 and in 2003 it was $205,000.
Townsend says that the market has “stabilised” in recent months and that “things have calmed down since the buying frenzy” of 2005. “Two years ago buyers felt a lot of pressure to get in quick with offers otherwise they’d be left out in the cold,” she says. “But nowadays people don’t feel that pressure.”
It’s still possible to get a deal on Munjoy Hill but, according to Herrigal, “you’re paying a premium even if it’s a fixer-upper because that’s where the best resale value is”.
He says that the bargain properties are located on streets further away from the Eastern Promenade. “The houses right off the Prom are very nice and very expensive, and most of them have water views. The further away you get from the Prom the less nice the streets. Congress Street, Cumberland Street and Washington Street are probably the roughest areas and also where you’re likely to find a better price.”
“Bayside is another rough area on the fringe. But a new Whole Foods [upscale supermarket] just opened there so I think that within three to five years that area will be transformed. There’s good potential to add some sweat equity.”
Of course Munjoy Hill is not utopia. The long, dark, snowy New England weather is perhaps the biggest drawback for potential buyers. And property taxes are high. “The state of Maine has some of the highest real estate and income taxes in the country. And Portland – because it’s the biggest city – has the highest in the state,” says Hatcher.
Parking is another issue. “Most houses do not have off-street parking, which is a negative to the area,” says Townsend. “Also most houses are built on small city lots and have either tiny backyards or non-existent ones. But for those who want to live on the Eastern Prom, they just accept it.”
At this point, buyers in Munjoy Hill are mostly professional developers or locals seeking a primary residence but that is also starting to change. “We’re starting to see a trend of summer people from out of state coming in and buying here,” says Herrigel. Typically they already own a home in a warmer climate like California or Florida but they want to have a little place in Portland that they can spend May through to October in.”
The neighbourhood is particularly attractive to such home buyers because of its proximity to both the Old Portland beaches and the city’s cultural amenities, Hatcher adds. “They can fly into Portland Jetport, take a 10- or 15-minute cab ride to their place on Munjoy Hill and can enjoy all that Portland has to offer: arts, food, culture. But they are also close to the beaches and walking trails and parks if that’s what they have in mind.”
Local agentsTownsend Real Estate, tel: +1 2078429200; http://www.townsendre.com/
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007