West Hartford, Conn.: A Suburb With an Urban Aesthetic

on Apr14
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When Jonathan and Sarah Hammer began looking for a house in West Hartford, a bustling suburb abutting Connecticut’s capital city, it was immediately clear that they were in a fiercely competitive market. Early in March, they submitted an offer for $16,000 above the asking price for a five-bedroom colonial. Their offer was rejected, and the property later sold for closer to $90,000 above list.

The couple tried again several weeks later, having become smitten with the town during visits there to see Ms. Hammer’s sister and her husband.

“West Hartford reminded me of Ann Arbor, where I grew up,” said Ms. Hammer, 32. “There’s a similar vibe. A cute downtown. And it’s a little bit of a liberal enclave. Plus, it’s two hours from both Boston and New York, which is a huge win for us because we have friends in both places.”

They offered slightly above the asking price for a four-bedroom colonial on a quarter of an acre, and included an escalation clause stating that they would beat competing offers up to a maximum of $571,000.

They lost again, this time to an all-cash buyer who had agreed to allow the owners to stay in the house rent-free for a period after closing. But when that competing deal fell through, the Hammers got another shot and bought the house by agreeing to pay their maximum offer, waiving their mortgage contingency and allowing the owners to stay on for a month and a half after the May 7 closing.

Remarkably, the Hammers made these concessions without ever seeing the house in person. They live in Chicago, and with the market moving so fast, they had to rely on Ms. Hammer’s sister to help them check out properties via FaceTime.

The house they bought, built in 1937, “isn’t exactly our normal style — we’re into open concept and big windows,” said Ms. Hammer, who works in human resources systems management. “It was an experience trying to imagine what we could make the house look like if we did the renovations that we’re hoping to do.”

Mr. Hammer, 35, a software engineer, isn’t entirely confident that they got a good deal, but the priority for them as they anticipate starting a family, he said, is moving closer to relatives on the East Coast: “For us, it makes sense. We’re not really viewing this as an investment.”

Family was also a draw for Alyson Alissi, who had been renting above a bakery in the Elmwood section of town for a couple of years. She closes this month on a three-bedroom Cape about a quarter mile away.

Ms. Alissi, 25, a nurse at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, grew up in West Hartford, and returned after graduating from college in 2018. “I have lots of family members here,” she said. “I’m super close with my friends from high school. I like the town center, the restaurant scene, the school system. But I was sick and tired of paying rent.”

After checking out the house the day it went on the market, Ms. Alissi got preapproved for a mortgage the next morning and submitted an offer. Two days later, after the owners received multiple bids, she boosted her offer by $10,000, to $275,000, and waived the inspection contingency.

Much to her surprise, she won the bidding war.

“I only waived the inspection because I went in with my father, who’s really good at that sort of thing, and my boyfriend,” she said. “Plus, everything was fairly new, which was huge for me, because one of the things I’m not good at is decorative work. I was willing to pay a little extra for something that had everything finished.”

Covering 22 square miles between Hartford to the east and the 3,000 acres of preserved woodlands around five reservoirs along its western edge, West Hartford is a densely developed suburb with about 60,000 residents and an urban aesthetic.

Small commercial strips with cafes and salons anchor many of the walkable neighborhoods. The town center, at Farmington Avenue and LaSalle Road, is jammed with upscale restaurants offering a lively dining and cocktail scene. And apartments and multifamily homes are more plentiful throughout town than in most Connecticut suburbs.

“West Hartford is nicely positioned because it’s close to highways,” said John R. Lepore, a local agent with Berkshire Hathaway. “It’s an inclusive community, and it’s cosmopolitan in feeling. People moving in from major markets like it because of its energy and town center and reputation as a dining destination.”

The housing stock is mostly older, built between the 1920s and the 1960s, and lot sizes tend to be less than half an acre. Larger homes on more expansive properties can be found west of Mountain Road near the reservoir watershed lands, around the Hartford Golf Club and along Prospect Avenue, which borders Hartford, Mr. Lepore said.

Blue Back Square is a mixed-use development with stores, restaurants, condominiums and offices adjacent to the town center. It takes its name from the “Blue-Backed Speller,” the blue-covered grammar textbook for children developed in the 1780s by Noah Webster, who was born in West Hartford. His birthplace on South Main Street is now a museum.

The Bishops Corner shopping area, north of downtown, draws residents from surrounding towns with its chain stores and trendy takeout restaurants. At the opposite end of town, the Westfarms mall is anchored by a Nordstrom and Macy’s.

The median sale price for a single-family home during the 12 months ending in February 2021 was $333,625, a 5.8 percent increase over the previous year, according to data provided by Bonnie Collins, an agent with William Raveis. Inventory was down by half, and the average days on market dropped from 73 to 36.

Prices have risen dramatically in recent months. The median price of $345,000 for the 180 sales that closed from December 2020 through the end of February marked a nearly 19 percent increase over the same period a year ago. That median price typically buys a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on a quarter of an acre or less, Ms. Collins said.

The median sale price for condos for the year ending in February was $230,000, up 9.5 percent over the previous year. One of the pricier developments in town is the Heritage, at Blue Back Square, where two three-bedroom units closed last year for more than $1 million apiece.

Earlier this month, the least expensive property for sale in West Hartford was a one-bedroom condo, built in 1961 and listed for $115,000. The most expensive, at $2.187 million, was a five-bedroom home with an indoor sports court, an outdoor pool and a three-car garage, on 1.27 acres.

West Hartford is a foodie’s paradise, with restaurants offering cuisines influenced by a wide array of nationalities.

“I was very proud of my town last year when they made LaSalle Road one-way and let the restaurants have half the road to put tables on,” Ms. Collins said, referring to the height of the pandemic. “It became kind of a mecca.”

Hall’s Market, dating to 1935, is a rare surviving family-owned market on Park Road that continues to offer a custom-cut meat counter and home delivery.

Outdoor pursuits are just as popular as food. The town has two private golf courses and a stunning municipal course, Rockledge Golf Club. Westmoor Park, once a fox-hunting ground, has 162 acres with wildflower meadows, perennial gardens, trails and a demonstration farm. And Elizabeth Park, covering 100 acres, draws crowds to its outdoor concerts and walking trails.

About a quarter of Elizabeth Park extends into Hartford, which owns and manages the land. The park also has the oldest municipal rose garden in the country, a two-and-a-half-acre plot that hits its peak in late June.

“People come from all over the world to see this garden,” said Christine Doty, president and chief executive of the Elizabeth Park Conservancy. “We added a smaller, heritage rose garden in 2017 that features only roses that were in existence prior to 1870.”

More than 70 languages are spoken in West Hartford’s student body of roughly 9,200. About 57 percent of students are white, 18.5 percent are Hispanic, 11 percent are Asian and 9 percent are Black.

“One of the great things is that we are truly diverse, like the U.S.” said Thomas Moore, the district superintendent. “It brings a kind of perspective to the kids that go through our schools, because they see exactly what the world is like that they’re going to be entering.”

The district has 11 elementary schools: nine neighborhood schools and two magnet schools. Most are kindergarten through grade five; four schools offer prekindergarten.

Students move on to one of three middle schools for grades six through eight, and then to two high schools, Conard and Hall, each of which enrolls about 1,450 students. The district has the highest number of students taking Advanced Placement exams of any district in the state, Mr. Moore said. Last year, about 1,000 students scored at least a 3 out of 5 on an AP exam.

District SAT scores for 2020 were 573 in English and 552 in math; the state means were 527 and 505.

While the real estate blitz hasn’t had a noticeable effect on current enrollment, Mr. Moore said that kindergarten enrollments for next year are “way ahead” of where they usually are.

Private schools in town include Northwest Catholic High School and the American School for the Deaf, the country’s oldest permanent school for the deaf.

Daily Amtrak train service to New York is available at Union Station in Hartford. The ride to Penn Station takes just under three hours; some trains require a transfer in New Haven. One-way fares range from $27 for coach to $88 for business class.

The roughly 120-mile drive to Manhattan, by way of the Merritt Parkway and I-95, takes about two and a half to three hours, depending on traffic.

In September 1983, a Wells Fargo security guard bound two co-workers at a company terminal in town and made off with more than $7 million. Authorities later concluded that the guard, Victor Gerena, then 25, had been recruited by Los Macheteros, a militant group seeking to free Puerto Rico from U.S. rule. In 1989, four Puerto Rican nationalists were convicted on charges stemming from the robbery. Mr. Gerena, however, has never been found, and remained on the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted List until 2016.

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