One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.
There is more than a hint of change in Norristown's real estate market.
It can be very subtle, like a sprinkle of cinnamon on a cappuccino at Jus' Java on Main Street.
It can be loud, like the arrival of the 7:27 a.m. Manayunk-Norristown train, or construction on the Lafayette Street corridor that will, by 2020, finally link the community with the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Norristown, the borough urges, is "Where You Belong," and developers and real estate agents say it is committed to making that happen after decades of neglect and false starts.
"The world of the large towns is coming back," says Fort Washington-based developer John Westrum, who is starting construction of his 157-unit Luxor at Sandy Street luxury apartment complex at the edge of the Montgomery County seat. "Demographic shifts have been moving toward urbanization, and Norristown has long been overlooked."
Westrum, who has experience in both the suburbs and city neighborhoods, believes that the transformation won't come overnight.
Yet while Norristown "doesn't have the same economic viability" as do other places, he says, "it has all the major employment hubs within a five- to 10-minute drive."
Change in Norristown has to come from "the edges in," Westrum says, and that's why Luxor is near the borough's border with East Norriton Township.
He isn't the only one seeing promise here.
Three years ago, BET Investments, owned by Bruce E. Toll, bought the 318-unit Curren Terrace apartments on New Hope Street.
CBRE Global Investors recently bought the 358-unit Montgomery Mills at 1000 Regatta Circle for $54.6 million.
Renaissance "would be nice, if it happens," says Rick Schurr, of Re/Max Services in Blue Bell, a Plymouth Township native who has sold houses in the borough for many years.
The housing market here is varied, as is true with many older communities, Schurr says. In fact, Norristown "is more like two separate towns."
Prices in the west end, which features newer and large twin homes, range from $140,000 to $170,000, "and they always sell first," he says.
In the rest of Norristown, the much older rowhouses sell from $40,000 to $70,000, he says.
In the second quarter of this year, there were 135 sales, ranging in price from $14,000 to $234,000. The median price was $100,000 - up more than 34.7 percent from $74,250 a year earlier.
"The [demographic] is the first-time buyer, under 30, single, and looking for a starter home," Schurr says.
There are those such as Flourtown-based architect James Morrissey, who wonder why Norristown, seat of one of the nation's wealthiest counties, has lagged behind other area boroughs.
The reasons are many, says Gary Segal, of Keller Williams Real Estate in Blue Bell: "All you have to overcome is fear, a lower-rated school system than all the areas that surround it, expensive and extremely difficult borough use-and-occupancy rules to comply with, and the buyers' downward pressure on perceived values.
"Now, with all that, you can get a ton of house for the money or a much greater return on investment on a rental property, of which there are many available," Segal says.
Schurr says Norristown continues to feel the consequences of allowing many of the big houses on DeKalb Street to be broken up into lower-end rentals, many of which were subsequently neglected.
Urged by Keller Williams agent Remy Pizzichini to look at Norristown, Morrissey, who works for developers in the neighborhoods adjacent to Center City, and his senior project manager, Chris Carickhoff, picked up one of those neglected houses on DeKalb 18 months ago and redesigned it as three single-floor condominiums.
Just completed, one has sold; two others are on the market. List price: $175,000, and buyer interest is high, Morrissey says.
On either side is Arbor Heights, built by Sarah Peck, of Progressive Housing Venture of Malvern. Its townhouse prices easily averaged $135,000, she says, and the one resale since was $20,000 higher.
"I was invited [by the borough] to build here," says Peck, whose new 24-unit condo project in the block, Arbor Mews, is half-sold, at prices from $143,900 to $177,900.
"There was no evidence of a real estate market here," she says. "There was no motivation to live in the neighborhood."
Signs are, that's no longer true.
Population: 34,432 (2013 est.)
Median household income: $43,536 (2013)
Area: 3.5 square miles
Settlements in the last three months: 135
Homes for sale: 216
Average days on market: 72
Median sale price: $100,000
Housing stock: Rowhouses, twins, and singles dating from the 19th century.
School district: Norristown Area
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach's HomExpert Market Report; Diane Williams, Weichert Realtors, Blue Bell.EndText