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Upwardly mobile society targets top-tier property

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Kevin Mihm, realtor, stands in front of one of the upper-level homes in Hampton that he is concentrating on, Thursday, April 18th, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Kevin Mihm, realtor, stands in front of one of the upper-level homes in Hampton that he is concentrating on, Thursday, April 18th, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Kevin Mihm, realtor, stands in front of one of the upper-level homes in Hampton that he is concentrating on, Thursday, April 18th, 2013.

The outlook in the real estate industry is looking up — right up to the listings at the upper end of the market.

“Consumer confidence is so high right now,” says Michelle Lantz, sales director at Howard Hanna Real Estate's Fox Chapel office.

Kevin Mihm, a broker/agent at the McCandless office of Coldwell Banker, says the market is dominated by clients moving up in careers or on to bigger houses. Colleagues, competitors and others agree home sales right now are a great deal pricier than in the past or, when they are at lower prices, have to be handled with iSpeed.

“There is one word that is really important right now, and that is ‘mobile',” says Mihm, who has put together as a 24/7 way of dealing with clients he has turned his attention to — those looking at upper-end homes.

The market is active in many ways, real estate professionals say.

Lantz says she can understand dealing with the upper-end clientele because they are steering the market with job relocations and moves to second and third homes.

“There are just so few listings in the $250,000 range that when you get one, they go in hours,” she says.

Increases in sales seem to indicate interest in that direction, says Daniel A. Murrer, vice president of RealStats, the South Side-based data group. Sales in Allegheny County of houses from $450,000 to $549,999 are up 32.7 percent from April 2011 to March 2012 and 33.4 percent for houses $550,000 and above.

Meanwhile, sales in the $150,000 to $249,999 range increased 18.3 percent.

“This is really a townhouse market for the first-time buyer,” says Chris Schoonmaker, president of the housing division of Centre County-based S&A Homes. That firm has urban and suburban projects all over the state. He says the costs of land, materials and labor take many new homes close to $500,000.

For that reason, a first-time buyer either has to settle for an older home or a townhouse to get into home ownership for $250,000 to $300,000, he says.

He and other real estate professionals also say lower mortgage rates — hovering around 3.4 percent — make it enticing to borrow more money.

Even smaller builders are finding interest leaning in the higher direction. Michael Ruefle, builder-developer at Suncrest Homes in Murrysville, says work at his Serenity Pointe development is “going crazy” in homes that approach $500,000. It and the higher-priced Siena Ridge, also in Murrysville, are popular because they are in “Type A” locations that have new homes and are close to Pittsburgh highways.

Popularity of these properties also is stirring interest in what he calls Type B properties such as Allegheny Woodlands in the Kiski Area School District and Butler County's Sarver Mills, both of which are in the $250,000 to $350,000 range.

Howard Hanna's Lantz says there are so few homes in that $250,000 to $300,000 category, buyers are on the road with checkbooks so they can act quickly if they have to.

While the $150,000 to $349,999 category still has more entries than those above $350,000 — 4,179 to 1,281 — the increase in sales of higher-priced homes has caught the eyes of Mihm and other real estate professionals.

The market for pricier homes here reflects overall housing prices, Mihm says.

Jumbo mortgages — and higher rates — here start at $417,000 as opposed to $729,000 in New York City and the District of Columbia area, he says.

That difference means a Western Pennsylvania “luxury home” might seem to have a downright reasonable price in Fairfax, Va.

“The markets are different in every location,” the 29-year real estate veteran says.

Mihm believes the luxury home market starts at $550,000 while it would be $750,000 in the more-expensive markets.

But he also sees that price range as the spot where the market is and has aimed his effort at it.

The real job of selling real estate, he says, is having knowledge about an area that fits a client's desires. For instance, knowing about the schools, transportation, infrastructure, crime rate and area parks is as important as finding out details of a home.

He estimates 55 percent of his clients are those moving into the area because of career reasons.

He says he felt he had to go into the personal mobile function, borrowing the lower-case “i” that Apple uses.

“Mihm is just that name, and TV sounds good,” he says about the other parts of the name of the website that is available in 67 languages and features filmed tours of the luxury homes he is working on.

“The big thing is that you can look it up whenever you get a chance,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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