Homes are Sitting on the Market In Princeton’s Pricey Western Section

TAKE YOUR PICK: This house on Princeton’s Library Place is one of several in the exclusive Western Section that is currently for sale. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)

By Anne Levin

There appears to be a glut of seven-figure mansions available in Princeton’s Western Section. No less than five are advertised for sale on Library Place. Four more of these palatial homes, a favorite of gawkers on tours of the town, are up for grabs on Hodge Road, around the corner. A few more have “For Sale” signs on Morven Place and Cleveland Lane.

While changes in the new tax laws, property taxes that can reach more than $60,000, the pending School Board referendum, and changing demographics add in to the equation, local real estate agents say the situation is normal and no crisis is at hand. “It’s a convergence of a few things,” said Judson R. Henderson, whose Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty is handling a majority of the listings in the neighborhood. “I’m having this conversation a lot, but we are close to deals on a number of them and we recently put one under contract.”

Bigger homes usually take longer to sell. “If you look at who those sellers are, they no longer have kids in the school system or sources of income anymore,” Henderson continued. “There are 41 properties listed above $2 million in Mercer County through June. Last year, there were 37. There just happens to be a lot of them on Library Place.”

Gerri Grassi, vice president and broker manager with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices/Fox & Roach Realtors, said houses in the $2.5 million category and up usually take longer to unload. “Right now, our statistics show that the $1.5 to $2 million homes take 11 months, while above that it’s over a year.”

Grassi cites changes in the economy of China, which has been an active market for these homes in the past. “So we’re not getting wonderful people in China to come so much right now,” she said. “And then we have the new tax law that puts a cap on the amount you can deduct. The state is talking about trying to come up with some other ways to appropriate the money, but nothing has been done.”

Most of the houses in the Western Section boast distinguished historical and architectural pedigrees. Richard Morris Hunt, architect of The Breakers in Newport, R.I., and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, designed the 1880s home for sale at 68 Library Place. According to information advertising the property for sale, it was built “as a gift for a Princeton Seminary dignitary.”

John Heilner and his wife have been trying to sell their four-bedroom house — among the smaller on Library Place — since April. Built in 1874, it was the home of three Princeton University eating clubs before being moved from a site on University Place in 1908. The couple plan to move to a ranch house in the Riverside neighborhood.

“We’ve been here almost 20 years. We’re getting older and we need to downsize,” said Heilner. “But we love our house. It’s beautiful.”

Heilner thinks that the psychological impact of the tax law change is hurting sales. “I made some calculations, and for people who can really afford to buy houses that cost $2 million and up, the change in the tax law is not so huge,” he said. “It hurts, but you may be taking a standard deduction because that was doubled. Tax rates for people in high income brackets were reduced somewhat.”

Grassi thinks some of the houses in the Western Section are overpriced. “The buyer is discerning before they even come to a real estate professional,” she said. “We used to be in charge of educating them. Now, the internet does that. So they’ve researched everything, and they’re looking at prices, at a scale. They’ll wait for prices to come down.”

On July 16, a three-alarm fire tore through the roof of the nine-bedroom house at 140 Hodge Road. Luckily, no one was home. In fact, the house was unoccupied, and  the previous owner had tried repeatedly to sell it. Would these mansions in the Western Section ever be divided up into multiple dwellings?

“With the municipality talking about rezoning, it would be interesting to see if anything would ever be done to accommodate that,” said Henderson. “But I don’t expect that to happen.”

Grassi thinks those serious about selling will reconsider the prices they are asking. “The others who are not will return to the market and wait it out, if they can,” she said. “That is the thought pattern of a lot of them, and that’s fine. That’s what makes the market move. The ones who really do not need to sell will come off [the market], and those who are serious will price their homes correctly.”