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Branford, Conn.: Where Life Revolves Around the Water

John and Clementina Strell spent at least five years looking for a home in Branford, Conn., a coastal town in New Haven County that they knew …

Branford, Conn.: Where Life Revolves Around the Water

John and Clementina Strell spent at least five years looking for a home in Branford, Conn., a coastal town in New Haven County that they knew well because they kept their boat at a marina there.

“Everything we looked at was either out of our price range or it sold before we could go see it,” Mr. Strell said.

But in April, a house appeared online, and the Strells, who were living 30 minutes away in Prospect, Conn., recognized it immediately. A three-level, four-bedroom home on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound, it was in the Indian Neck section of town, close to the marina.

They submitted a bid at the asking price the day the home was listed, and had a deal a day later. “We paid just shy of $1 million,” said Mr. Strell, 47, a pharmaceuticals executive. “I feel very comfortable with that. After being here for about two months, I have no regrets at all. We’re loving it.”

With a population of about 28,000, Branford has all the conveniences of a larger town, but within its many waterfront enclaves, the “vibe and character” of a smaller town, he said. In their Indian Neck neighborhood, they are a 10-minute walk from the marina and just down the street from Bud’s Fish Market, a fresh seafood store in operation since 1948.

“I ordered some steamed lobsters last week, and when I went down, they had them all ready for us,” Mr. Strell said. “I just brought them home and threw them on the picnic table.”

Kate Heilpern, 60, and Terri Mallory, 63, also benefited from their familiarity with Branford when they began looking for a weekend house there several years ago, while living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

“We were specifically interested in Stony Creek — it’s diverse and quirky, and there’s a real sense of community pride,” said Ms. Heilpern, a hospital executive currently on sabbatical. “But homes don’t turn up for sale very often.”

The town is home to many waterfront enclaves, including one known as Indian Neck.Credit…Jane Beiles for The New York Times

Ms. Mallory had a friend in Stony Creek, someone she used to rent from while her son was in boarding school. And it was thanks to him that they got an early heads up that an older home across the street from the water was coming on the market.

They bought it in 2018 with the intention of renovating (they declined to disclose the sale price), but have since decided to build a new house. An architect friend who lives in Stony Creek drew up plans for a “small, cozy structure designed to withstand the elements,” Ms. Heilpern said. The house will face a marsh on one side and the picturesque Thimble Islands on another.

A few months ago, the couple moved out of New York altogether, to live in Stony Creek full time. While their new home is being built, they are staying in a 900-square-foot cottage they were able to buy next door, to serve as a guesthouse.

“We were really lucky,” Ms. Heilpern said. “The cottage was built in the 1860s, and the woman who owned it had lived there for decades. She approached us about it, and it was one of those things where the stars just aligned.”

23 JUNIPER POINT ROAD | A four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom waterfront house, built in 2007 on 1.31 acres, listed for $4.4 million. 203-215-4990Credit…Mark Orensteen

What You’ll Find

The town of Branford is just outside New Haven, and most of its 22 square miles sit below Interstate 95, in densely developed neighborhoods nestled around the many coves and inlets carved into the Long Island Sound shoreline. The various areas have their own names and characteristics; most of their beaches are private.

The westernmost Short Beach neighborhood has its own zoning board, which controls development and has kept the heart of the community looking “pretty much the same over the past 100 years,” said Joe Piscitelli, a broker with Coldwell Banker. It’s home to the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club, a public sailing facility.

Pine Orchard, with its grand old homes dating to Branford’s early 1900s heyday as a summer colony, is known for its yacht and country club, which has a lengthy waiting list for new members.

Residents of Linden Shores are common owners of the waterfront along Linden Avenue, which is maintained by a local board with taxing authority.

Stony Creek is perhaps the most accessible to visitors. In addition to having its own post office and library, the village has a small market, two casual restaurants facing the water, on-street parking and a dock where tour boats take passengers out to view the Thimble Island archipelago. Most of the small, rocky islands are uninhabited, but about two dozen have one or more seasonal homes.

Wheeler Island, which has an eight-bedroom home, is currently listed for sale for $2.999 million. Margaret Muir, the listing agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s, said she has sold two other islands over the past 12 months or so; the same owner listed all three. But the islands and island homes don’t come up for sale very often, she noted: “They tend to stay in families for generations.”

The town center, wrapped around a historic green, has an array of shops and restaurants, some with outdoor dining. Many longtime locals gravitate toward Donovan’s Reef, a pub-style restaurant with live music — “one of those places in town where everybody knows your name,” said Vicky Welch, a real estate agent with William Raveis.

Route 1, which runs east-west through town, is lined with chain stores, strip malls and health-care facilities.

22 TURTLE BAY DRIVE | A three-bedroom, two-bathroom waterfront condo, built in 1979, listed for $785,000. 888-699-8876Credit…Jane Beiles for The New York Times

What You’ll Pay

The market is moving so quickly these days that most homes are snapped up as soon as they are listed, Ms. Welch said. The town is particularly popular with employees of Yale University, about 20 minutes away.

“I listed five homes last week,” she said, referring to the last week of August. “All four are under deposit, and I’m getting an offer today on the fifth.”

As of Aug. 30, the median sale price for a single-family home was $407,000, up from $375,000 in 2020, according to data provided by Ms. Welch. That median price typically buys a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom colonial-style home on a cul-de-sac, she said.

In late August, about 65 single-family homes were listed for sale. The least expensive, at $199,900, was an 870-square-foot, two-bedroom Cape within walking distance of downtown. The most expensive, at $4.9 million, was a farm property in the Stony Creek area, with a seven-bedroom house and four parcels totaling 63 acres.

Mr. Piscitelli, the agent with Coldwell Banker, said the average list price for the Branford waterfront properties he specializes in is around $1.4 million. That market is the busiest it has been in at least a decade, he said, with so many buyers “coming out of the metro area looking for waterfront retreats.”

Branford has some 3,600 condominiums distributed among 49 complexes, most in the northwestern end of town, Ms. Welch said. The median sale price for a two-bedroom condominium is around $200,000, up from $183,000 in 2020. The eight units listed as of the end of August were priced from $199,000 to $349,900.

About two dozen apartments and houses were listed for rent. A 550-square-foot studio was the least expensive, at $795 a month; at the high end, a four-bedroom home overlooking the Thimble Islands was asking $7,500 a month.

36 APPLEWOOD ROAD | A three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom house, built in 1953 on an acre, listed for $414,900. 203-314-7578Credit…Jane Beiles for The New York Times

The Vibe

Not surprisingly, much of life in Branford is oriented around the water. Ms. Heilpern and Ms. Mallory have become avid kayakers since moving in.

“There are a lot of little coves and nooks, which makes it really fun,” Ms. Heilpern said.

Branford Point Beach, on Branford Harbor, is a small town beach with a playground, picnic area and lifeguards during the summer months. An annual parking pass for residents is $5.

The Owenego is a popular beach and tennis club with a beachside cafe; an annual family membership is $1,100. A former summer resort that dates to the 1800s, the Owenego still offers lodging in its historic inn.

The outdoor deck at Lenny’s restaurant, in Indian Neck, offers a marsh view.Credit…Jane Beiles for The New York Times

The Schools

The Branford school district serves about 2,600 students in three neighborhood elementary schools (prekindergarten through fourth grade), an intermediate school (fifth through eighth grade) and a high school (ninth through 12th grade). The student population is 71 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 4 percent Black, according to state data.

About 23 languages are spoken in the schools, said Hamlet Hernandez, the schools superintendent. The district is working to diversify its faculty, he added, and would welcome diverse candidates “with open arms.”

A multiyear renovation and expansion project is just wrapping up at the Francis Walsh Intermediate School. The facility has maker spaces for project-based learning, Promethean interactive whiteboards in every classroom, a state-of-the-art auditorium and a swimming pool, Mr. Hernandez said.

Branford High School enrolls about 800 students. Average SAT scores in 2020 were 538 in reading and writing, and 532 in math, compared with state averages of 527 and 505, he said.

Branford Academy on the Green is a former school established in the 1800s.Credit…Jane Beiles for The New York Times

The Commute

Shore Line East trains run regularly from Branford Station to New Haven, where commuters can board a Metro-North train to Grand Central. The ride into the city takes just over two hours. A one-way ticket is $17.75 to $24, depending on the time of day and method of purchase, and a monthly pass is $507.

Driving to Midtown Manhattan on Interstate 95 takes two to three hours, depending on traffic.

The History

The Legacy Theatre recently opened in a historic building in the Stony Creek neighborhood, after a nearly $5 million renovation project. The structure has a long history as a performance space. Briefly one of the first silent-picture movie houses in the area, it was expanded for live theater productions in the 1920s. A girdle manufacturer occupied the building from 1946 to 1960, but the space took a more fanciful turn after that, as a puppet theater showcasing handmade Sicilian rod-operated puppets. Legacy, a theatrical company led by Keely Baisden Knudsen, the artistic director and a founder of the theater, bought the empty building in 2013; under an agreement carefully worked out with neighbors, it will be open 150 days a year.

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