Despite the fragile economy, luxury buyers have returned to Westport this year, after sitting on the sidelines in 2009. And owners of the most expensive homes in town are breathing a sigh of relief.

Like the rest of our market, however, the ultra-high-end has not escaped unscathed. Although this elite segment used to start at $5 million, the local market decline has reduced the price of entry down to $4 million today. Except perhaps for water frontage, $4-5 million properties now have everything you once had to pay $5-6 million for in Westport.

What many market watchers don't know is that, prior to 2006 -- when six properties closed for more than $5 million -- an ultra-high-end market did not exist in Westport, as it always has in towns like Greenwich and New Canaan. Before 2006, only the occasional waterfront property traded that high.

The peak year for the ultra-high-end market was 2007, when 12 properties closed for more than $5 million. In 2008, there were eight of these, and another eight between $4-5 million. But in 2009, reflecting market distress, there were only three sales higher than $5 million -- and only one between $4-5 million.

So far this year, with only six weeks remaining in 2010, seven properties have closed over $5 million in Westport. Between $4-5 million, seven have closed, three are pending, and three are bindered -- for a total of 13.

Other indicators of top-end segment health include builders continuing to offer new $4-5million spec homes ... increased numbers of showings at ultra-high-end properties ... and consistently high levels of Internet hits on upper-end listings. I have witnessed these last two first-hand on my own ultra-high-end segment listing.

Right now, there are 15 active listings over $5 million and 17 between $4-5 million for 2011 buyers to choose from. And this does not include a number of ultra-high-end spec builds currently under construction but not yet listed.

There are some common themes as far as what ultra-high-end buyers are looking for. These include two-plus acres, for privacy, new construction, a pool and cabana and/or tennis court, a sense of grandeur upon approach, not too close to the road, and with the latest luxury amenities inside. Unless it is a waterfront property, buyers expect a house at this level not to require renovation. Favorite locations are Greens Farms, Old Hill and anyplace near the water.

Older homes in the ultra-high-end segment are often overlooked in favor of new construction. In general, older homes that compete best with new builds have "A-plus" locations, a neutral color palette without taste-specific furnishings, décor that appeals to younger buyers, and layouts/fixtures/finishes that reflect current new construction trends.

Most of what gets published about the local real estate market features averages or medians that describe trends for the market at large. Since it represents relatively few annual transactions, the ultra-high-end segment is not often covered, even though many consider it a bellwether for the overall market. Thus, the reinvigoration of the ultra-high-end of Westport's housing market is a positive sign. Those who put stock in the "trickle down" theory are already encouraged. Stay tuned for future updates.

Evi Coghlan is a licensed real estate agent with Coldwell Banker's Westport/Riverside office and a former marketing consultant who advised Fortune 100 companies. She can be reached at 203-247-6691 or evi@evicoghlan.com