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New Canaan Housing Market Languishes, But Not Everyone Is Worried

New Canaan, Connecticut, is one of the wealthiest towns in America. One measure of that wealth is the cost of housing, and New Canaan has hundreds of multimillion-dollar homes. But these days, more and more of them are up for sale.

One in every 50 people in New Canaan is a licensed realtor. Not all of them are full-time realtors, of course – some just have the license, and do it occasionally or part-time.

John Engel is a full-time realtor and a town councilman.

“In a climate where we have 350 houses on the market, sometimes it feels like the whole neighborhood is for sale,” he says.

That’s at least a five-year high for New Canaan. Home sales in Fairfield County’s wealthy Gold Coast have picked up overall this year, but New Canaan’s has not – yet. So last month, Engel and some other folks in town suggested to take some of the "For Sale" signs down. One theory was that signs look bad, and could scare potential home buyers away. For his part, Engel says he doesn’t think people need "For Sale" signs as much anymore in the days of real estate apps like Trulia and Zillow.

Right now, Engel is showing a $3.4 million mansion that’s unquestionably luxurious. High vaulted ceilings, marble floors. “I think one of the best features of this house is certainly the pool,” he says as he steps into the backyard. “Waterfall, hot tub, stone terrace, full bar for entertaining probably 150 people.”

This home is a couple miles down the road from another house for sale – owned by GE CEO Jeff Immelt. GE’s decision to leave Connecticut for Boston prompted Immelt to move to a condo in the heart of the city. He’s not the only one.

“Remember, what GE finally said, after they quit posturing,” says John Glascock, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Economic Studies. “The reason they’re moving to Boston is the young couples did not want to come to that part of Connecticut to work.”

There’s been a lot of talk about where millennials want to live – there are Nielsen stats that show 60 percent of them prefer cities. There’s also a trend the other way. Census data from 2014 show many millennials left the city for the suburbs after they had kids. Glascock says some would rather get a condo in the city, or in a walkable suburb with good restaurants and nightlife. They want to live smaller.

“They don’t want to maintain a big house, and they don’t need as big a house,” he says. “That relatively will hurt the Gold Coast. Those homes are quite large and reasonably expensive. And they were built for families. Larger families than the next generation looks like they’re going to have.”

Realtors are now focusing on the charm of its downtown to lure people to New Canaan. It has blocks and blocks of little shops and restaurants clustered around the train station. Condos are already going up near the shops.

“I think it’s a tacit recognition of the importance of downtown,” says Engel. “Knowing your neighbors, meeting your friends, shopping, eating and connecting with your community.”

Then there are people like Roy Abramowitz. His $2 million-plus house is tucked away on four acres of land on a rural road. There are lots of windows.

“It’s great to sit in this house during a storm, especially a lightning storm or a snowstorm,” he says.

Speaking of snowstorms, Abramowitz’s house is the one from the 1997 film “The Ice Storm,” the movie about misbehavior among elite prep school students and their parents. Abramowitz’s house isn’t within walking distance of any restaurants or shops, and he’s happy that way.

“I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn and lived in an apartment in the city,” he says. “I like size, and I like land. If I wanted to live in the center of town, I’d keep an apartment in Manhattan.”

Abramowitz says he thinks realtors want to herd people out of the big estates and toward the condos, and he’ll have none of it. He plans to retire in about five years and move out west.

“Maybe in two years we’re going to start listing the house, because you probably need a three-year period of time to attract the buyer,” he says.

Real estate agent John Engel says he doesn’t think it’s that grim. He says the market might be tough, but he still banks on the qualities that have drawn people to New Canaan for decades.

“I think we’re gonna have great schools and a great downtown,” he says. “And I think we’re gonna continue to attract the best and brightest. It may not be a Wall Street-centric or even a New York-centric economy.”

He says when millennials do settle down and have kids, New Canaan will be there for them.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.