Metro Detroit’s Hottest Home Markets

Real estate bidding wars are back. Homes are selling before a For Sale sign goes up. Brokers’ open houses and their inducements – free iPads, gift certificates, lunches – are going by the wayside. Prices are climbing. Available property is becoming a precious thing. 
It may not be a return to the glory days of the real estate market, but buyers are paying a premium for high-end homes with easy access to a community that comes with built-in amenities. In metro Detroit, it’s cities such as Birmingham, Rochester, Northville, Plymouth and the Grosse Pointes, where finer, high-end homes deliver a suburban-urban experience.
“People want to see an identity. They want to see a vibrancy that’s going on,” says Mike LeVan, a realtor with Adlhoch & Associates in Grosse Pointe Woods. 
There is an undeniable appeal to living in or near a downtown, where shops, restaurants and offices are centrally located. Communities that boast a walkable or bike-rideable core, where parades, concerts, farmers markets, parks, art, inspiring architecture are the norm, make for a richer quality of life. They also attract professional talent.
LeVan is working to find a house in the Grosse Pointes for a couple of doctors in their mid-20s. They want something around $600,000, he says, “but they want to be close enough to the stuff they want to do, to be able to walk there,” he says.
So, what’s hot in the professional, high-end housing market? Well, a good indicator is whether the community has an active Downtown Development Authority, or economic development officials working to improve a city’s downtown. Even during the downturn these organizations added streetscapes to make their Main Streets more inviting and safe. They worked to make their cities gathering places, by spending money on public events. They were proactive about establishing development policies that increased density and vibrancy while maintaining a sense of cultural heritage. And in the process they moved toward cementing their identities and sense of place. 
Like Birmingham, Rochester, Plymouth and Northville, the Grosse Pointes are in a heyday of real estate sales that feels like a time warp.
“It’s absolutely on fire right now. We’re back to the early 2000s when you couldn’t wait to act if you found house you liked,” says LeVan.
The five Grosse Pointes – the City, the Farms, the Park, the Woods and the Shores – hug Lake St. Clair and have parks with access to the water. It’s a boaters’ community and a town where parks that come with special features and activities like ice rinks and a movie theater are a point of pride as is the Little League baseball.
There are are at least four business districts through the Pointes, Mack Avenue in Grosse Pointe Woods being the largest. The City of Grosse Pointe has the Village and is considered the Pointes’ downtown. The Farms has The Hill on Kercheval Avenue, largely offices but with standout restaurants and a handful of shops and the Fisher Road shops. The Park business district on Kercheval on the border of Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit is the up-and comer of the Pointes, on the cusp of several new business openings by respected restraunteurs and other retailers.
The Pointes are also benefiting from being near Detroit, where many Pointers work, and more and more spend after hours as Detroit’s restaurant, nightlife and downtown living scene come back to life. This reflects a generational shift in attitude about both the city and a recognition that the urban environment brings with it certain quality of life advantages.
One side effect of the down economy, LeVan explains, is the rise of new restaurants and retailers, opening as locals canceled their country and yacht club memberships. 
“In the the old days people belonged to the clubs. You paid dues, that’s where you went,” he says. “After companies could no longer make that part of packages or people were losing their jobs that went away. It wasn’t great for the clubs, but it’s really woken up the businesses.”
Homes are also selling fast in Birmingham too, where multiple bidders are duking it out over homes not yet officially listed, says Maureen Francis, an associate broker at SKBK Sotheby’s International Realty.
“It’s like it’s the mid 2000s all over again. Houses aren’t only turning over, but buyers are demolishing and building newer, larger houses. They love new builds here,” says Francis. “They not only want Birmingham’s stately neighborhoods but also its school district and park and its downtown.”
Birmingham is probably metro Detroit’s most upscale downtown – though it’s had its struggles and changes over the last several years. It’s still the go-to for high-end shopping and good eats and nearly every other service. Booth Park is a popular hangout and site for free concerts and movies. Downtown shops host shopping and fashion events and parties. 
”People like the urban feel,” Francis says. “It’s so easy to get downtown.”
Frances claims that Birmingham’s real estate market started to recover about two years. “Last year was good. This year we have such an inventory shortage it’s crazy.” 
She says that the city sells itself, and so do the homes. “The focus of my job has changed so much. Now it’s knowing about things before they hit the market. In the old market we needed to do marketing events…give away an iPad, a $2,000 mattress to get people to come to your broker open. Now we can’t even keep the houses sitting long enough to have a brokers’ open.”
Last weekend, Frances realtes how she had six people bidding on a house near downtown before it was listed. It went for more than the asking price. Many of her clients are executives or doctors relocating to Detroit, and since the automotive companies have loosened up on relocation packages sales have only gone up.
“It’s so nice after the last five years of having to deliver really disappointing news to sellers.”
For downtown Rochester, which has been named a national historic Main Street, there’s a market of buyers that also want the downtown experience …but is looking for a massive home on a big piece of property. That’s where Oakland Township comes in, where half-million, million dollar and up homes are the norm.
Susan Campbell Johnson of SKBK Sotheby’s sells to executives, professionals and physicians who seek out Oakland Township and Rochester for a number of quality of life reasons.
“A lot of people don’t want cookie cutter,” she says. “They want larger property. More space. More room. And they want to be close to golf courses, the Detroit and Flint airports and fairly central in metro Detroit.”
Rochester is known for great restaurants, historic architecture and a downtown that’s busy day and night. “When you live in Rochester Hills and Oakland Township you’re usually 10 minutes max away from downtown,” she says. “A lot of people go to the farmers markets, the wonderful library, and walk the Paint Creek Trail, which runs from Rochester to Lake Orion.”
Jamey Kramer, of RE/MAX Classic in Novi, works with buyers who also like the historic downtown but want the small town feel that comes with Plymouth and Northville.
“Plymouth has the park right in downtown, a lot of cool restaurants, a lot of neat things,” says Kramer.
There are movie nights, Girls Nights Out, free concerts, gallery crawls and festivals, and, of course, Plymouth’s annual ice sculpture show. 
“There are people who really like the quaintness of Northville and Plymouth. And they like the idea of walking to downtown.”
Contrasting the two nearby communities Kramer describes Northville as “kind of quiet. Plymouth to me is almost like a west side Birmingham.” 
Home buyers near downtown are willing to pay for the old charm of farmhouses and other turn of the century-styled homes. Kramer has noticed that relocations have picked up, and the market as a whole has perked up as the automotive companies improved business. Locals are looking to move up, he says, and relieved that they can sell their homes for more.
“If clients are coming from the South they’re kind of in sticker shock…Michigan is expensive,” he says. “If you’re coming from California, New York, Boston, you may feel like you’re getting a good deal.”
Once here, though, he says, “I have people say they absolutely love it . There are more golf courses than any other state, more coastline. It’s freaking beautiful Michigan. And if you have to, get out[side] and love the winters.”

Kim North Shine is a freelance writer and Development News Editor for Metromode.