A local real estate broker was outside a lovely second-floor condominium ("They are a great affordable opportunity for anyone looking to live here," he said), waiting for a prospective buyer when the conversation turned to the town's best known homeowner.
"I don't think that Mitt Romney is one of the reasons this buyer is seeking out Belmont," said the agent, who has been selling property for two decades. "But it doesn't hurt when you mention [that the presumptive Republican candidate for president lives here]," he said, not wanting to provide his name or company ("I love buyers of all political views," he said with a laugh, "and I don't want to lose any of them.")
For the past 40 years, Belmont has been Mitt and Ann Romney's hometown, graduating from a colonial in the Winn Brook neighborhood to a grand house on Belmont Hill to an empty nester's townhouse in the McLean development. That pedigree would allow the Romneys to be accepted, if grudgingly, as 'old timers.'
While Mitt has been in the media spotlight for half the time he's lived in the "Town of Homes" – as governor and candidate for senate and president – you would be hard pressed to find real estate professionals to say that that the Romneys have had any appreciable impact on real estate values over the years.
As the South Cottage Street resident – he currently lives in a 3,000 sq.-ft. townhouse condominium worth about $890,000 – has won a tough Republican national primary and is in a tight race for the presidency, some brokers (and homeowners) are asking the question: just how will having a sign on Concord Avenue on the Cambridge town line proclaiming the "Hometown Of President Mitt Romney" affect home values?
(Not that that Romney is the only possible future head of state from Belmont. The next empress of Japan,, lived on Juniper Street when she was known as Masako Owada and graduated from Belmont High School, class of '81.)
According to a recent news report, there is some evidence that having a president hanging around the neighborhood does provide a bit of a lift in property values and home prices.
Not that Belmont home values are hurting. On the popular real estate website Zillow, Belmont's Home Value Index is $640,000, putting it in the upper rung of the property-value ladder. Over on Trulia.com, the average listing price for all property in town this week was $868,000.
Last week, Belmont real estate sales included several condominiums selling in a range from $250,000 to $990,000 — for a townhouse on Mitt Romney's street as well as a pair of nearly identical colonials a block from the other on Belmont Hill selling for more than a million dollars.
Belmont has little in common with Crawford, Tex. (home of former president George Bush), Plains, Ga. (Jimmy Carter) and Hope, Arkansas (Bill Clinton) —small rural towns. Kennebunkport on the Maine coast is a resort community where 41, George Herbert Walker Bush, is seen most of the year.
A bit of Chappaqua in the Bay State
Belmont, known for its homes and outstanding schools, more closely resembles the 'tony' suburb of Chappaqua, where Bill and Hillary Clinton have their New York residence.
"All the time, our buyers ask where the Clintons live," says Debra Doern,who runs real estate firm Houlihan Lawrence's office in the Clintons' adopted hometown in a TheStreet financial website story in February.
An upscale community known for fancy homes and good schools, Chappaqua has 105 properties listed for sale on Realtor.com. Prices range from $308,500 for a one-bedroom condo to $27.5 million for an 87-acre estate.
So don't expect Belmont's brokerage community to omit the fact of a Romney residency from their pitch to potential buyers.
"I would certainly agree that being the hometown residence of the president of the United States would bring much notoriety to Belmont, which would in turn help to bring in tourists and increase property values even after he has left office. I would absolutely use such to promote my property listings," said Hans Brings, a Waltham-based Realtor who is active in Belmont and is a Patch real estate blogger.
Another Realtor, who wished to be anonymous, believed that a Romney presidency would provide some "cachet" to Belmont's reputation.
"I could see some (buyers) adding (Belmont) to their list of places to consider," she said, "but it could also be a red flag to others who think they would be priced out of the town."
Another broker saw only dread with a Romney victory.
"My fear is that Belmont could now be a tourist site for ... Tea partiers and diminish the quality of life of here with their inability to understand the consequences of their ignorance," said the well-known broker who doesn't let her disdain for neighbor Romney prevent her from selling property on his street.
But when it comes to crunching the numbers, calculating a presidential "bump" in property values is fairly elusive.
Belmont broker Al Gutterman specializes in historic homes. He took it on himself two years ago to analyze the effect of the "favorite son phenomenon" on local real estate in anticipation of Romney's expected run for the presidency.
Speculators, beware the Romney bump
And what he found was that anyone seeking to gobble up homes on speculation of boom times after Mitt raises his hand before Chief Justice Roberts on Jan. 20, well, think again.
"I have told [potential buyers] that that is a speculative flier best left to Vegas," said Gutterman. In fact, a Romney presidency will likely have little impact on most real estate in Belmont.
"I think he would increase the value of your home value but only if he is living in your basement, and that's sort of unlikely," said the broker still waiting for his client at the condo.
And you only need to look as far as the current occupant of the White House to have the facts bear out Gutterman's data.
"President Obama's congressional district saw no benefit from his move to the White House; home prices there were not immune to the bust and fell in concert with surrounding districts, and mirrored Illinois in percentage drop," Gutterman said.
There was a land grab in Plains in 1976 when Carter was elected, but former President Gerald Ford's hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. rusted before during and after his presidency. And Ronald Reagan's home spot, the ranch in Santa Barbara, boomed not because "he had a key to the front door, but because it was the national Reagan-era boom," said Gutterman.
But that's not to say that all real estate is immune to a hometown president. In fact, Gutterman found that commercial and vacation properties do benefit from a head of state in the vicinity. Kennebunkport vacation properties skyrocketed after Bush 41 won in 1988, and Hot Springs, Ark., saw a boom in bed and breakfast-worthy properties in 1992.
What favorite son?
In Gutterman's analysis, the data shows that in urban and suburban markets, "a favorite son's home is not an appreciable point to folks shelling out a lifetime of debt to get what they want from location infrastructure and schools.
That sentiment was echoed by all the brokers and Realtors contacted.
"You buy in Belmont for the schools and its location to Boston, Cambridge and the highway," said the Realtor still waiting for his client to show up for the condo viewing.
"It's not because the Romneys live here."
And the days of a president having a hometown identity is going the way of the daily newspaper and moderates in either political party.
"Truman used to walk the streets in Independence, and Carter used to watch his peanuts grow, but does Romney's hometown-ness reach up to that level?" he wondered.
With leaders needing to be men or women of the world, it's growing ever unlikely that a national politician can be seen walking to the local department store on Main Street to buy socks "unless it is a photo-op," said Gutterman.
Home purchasing should be left to the domains of personal needs, budgets, and sound disclosure of property condition, said Gutterman.
"I will not be jeopardizing the financial security of my clients by bringing Romney's home address into that arithmetic," he said.
After all, a Romney presidency boom – if there is one – would naturally have to be followed by a post-Romney presidency bust, theorizes Gutterman.
While the possibility of a Romney presidency will not lift the values of homes in Belmont, having the leader of the free world hailing from your hometown is still pretty neat.
"As an ice breaker, I tell my clients I sat next to Mitt Romney at [il Casale restaurant in Belmont Center]," said the broker as his clients finally showed up with a shy two-year-old for their showing.
"Most just smile," he added.