By Lacey Sikora
Berkshire Hathaway Home Services expanded their local offerings in February opening a new office in River Forest, at 7773 Lake St.
John Lawrence, managing broker of the Oak Park office also manages the River Forest office and says the expansion was long-planned.
"Berkshire Hathaway has been exploring the idea of a River Forest space since my office was acquired in Oak Park in 2018," Lawrence said. "River Forest is a coveted area, and there's very little opportunity for a brick-and-mortar space, particularly on Lake Street. A number of agents are River Forest residents, and this shows our commitment to the area and will help us capture more of the River Forest market."
Broker Zak Knebel is partnering with Berkshire Hathaway to open the new office and is looking forward to bringing a presence to River Forest.
"It's a nice plus for clients," Knebel said. "We're the only organization that has an office in both Oak Park and River Forest, so, as brokers, we're uniquely situated to show people both communities."
The opening, just weeks before the coronavirus brought the Chicago area to a virtual standstill, was originally timed with an uptick in the spring real estate market. In an interview in mid-March, Lawrence said that was too early to state what the effects of the virus would have on the local real estate market, because sales statistics coming out at that time were based on work done in the previous 60 to 90 days.
Nevertheless, he says that the first quarter of 2020 will reflect a marked improvement in sales and closings over the same period in 2019.
First quarter reflections
Before the pandemic hit, Lawrence says much of the area was seeing a large increase in real estate activity. In River Forest in the period ending March 15, the combination of detached and attached sales closed was up 7 percent. The same period saw five sales at or above $1 million, compared with three at this time last year.
Oak Park had been showing strong numbers as well. As of March 15, the number of closed units, both detached and attached housing, was up 35 percent over the same period in 2019.
From Jan. 1 through March 15, the number of contracts written on detached housing was up 36 percent and the number of contracts for attached housing was up 57 percent.
"There's a significantly different feel for the buyer," Lawrence said. "They don't have the ability to sit and wait like they did last year."
Inventory is also down in the tri-village area. Lawrence says that there are 17 percent fewer listings in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park as of March 15. He says all of this has been good for sellers.
"There's more buyer activity and fewer things to choose from," Lawrence said. "We're seeing good houses go really quickly, and last year, this was not the case."
Lawrence says there are a number of factors at play in Oak Park's large uptick. In 2019, the federal tax law changes hit Oak Park hard with its high property taxes, and he says local school ratings also were part of the problem.
"Brooks and Julian both were receiving lower scores, and generally, there was a feeling of unrest and angst in the village," Lawrence said.
He says that this year, Julian's rating increased, and there may have been some pent-up demand from people who sat on the sidelines last year.
"Maybe people did a little more research and looked behind the scores and headlines and saw that both schools are good quality schools," Lawrence said.
While low mortgage rates undoubtedly play some role in the uptick in home sales for the first quarter, Lawrence believes other factors figure more prominently.
"The rates have been really good, but the second half of 2019, they were just as good as this year in January and February, so this is not just rate-driven," he said.
As effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to play out, Lawrence states, uncertainty is creeping in.
"In these first days of crisis mode, we're still seeing activity," Lawrence said. "We're still getting daily showing requests, but we are seeing some sellers pull their homes off the market."
He says that in the first five days of the crisis, Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park saw roughly 25 homes pulled from public listings or moved to temporary off-market status.
Lawrence many of those were pulled because of the uncertainty surrounding Oak Park's shelter-in-place order, issued on March 18. Once the state issued its own stay-at-home edict -- under which it was clear that showing homes was not prohibited -- Lawrence says many of the pulled listings are back on the market.
As he looks forward to growing the River Forest office, Lawrence says it makes sense to be open to more changes ahead.
"It'd be naïve to say the virus won't have a significant impact, but will it kick the can down the road? Maybe we'll pause and then go back to a typical spring market in the summer. We'll see," Lawrence said.
Answer Book 2019
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