Climate, crime rate draw buyers to the Kingdom

housing K&J

Karl Hayden and Jenny Lauer moved to Glover from Colorado last year, in part because of the availability of water in Vermont. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 4-10-2013

When Karl Hayden and Jenny Lauer decided to leave Colorado, one of the things they were looking for in a new home was water.  Mr. Hayden worked as supervisor at a pharmaceutical firm, and Ms. Lauer as an administrative assistant at the University of Colorado Boulder.  They lived in Arvada, a city of about 100,000 outside Denver.

For both health and lifestyle reasons, Mr. Hayden and Ms. Lauer wanted to grow their own fruits and vegetables and raise some animals.  That just wasn’t possible at their suburban home.

They looked first at land in Colorado, but “You can’t buy property with water in Colorado unless you’re rich,” Mr. Hayden said.

The couple did look at a 38-acre organic farm in that state.  But with water rights, its asking price was $2.25-million, Ms. Lauer said.

In Colorado, where water is increasingly scarce and forest fires are just plain increasing, the right to use the water on the property you buy is not automatic.  Generally, land and water rights are sold separately, Ms. Lauer said.  In fact, it’s illegal to even collect water in a rain barrel.  Whoever owns the water rights owns every drop that comes out of the sky, she said.

The couple searched nationwide for a new home, their priorities being the availability of water, health care, and a thriving local food movement.

They found what they were looking for at what they considered a reasonable price in Glover, where they bought about 15 acres of bare land and put up a yurt.   There’s a little stream nearby, which they viewed as a terrific asset, although the real estate agent considered it to be too pathetic to be worth mentioning.

“But we were like, oh, it’s water!” Mr. Hayden said.

“After 19 years in Colorado, anything that actually flows qualifies as a stream,” Ms. Lauer said.

Jim Campbell at Jim Campbell Real Estate was the agent who sold Ms. Lauer and Mr. Hayden their land in Glover.  He said he hasn’t personally experienced buyers wanting to move to Vermont because of changing climate.  He wasn’t aware that was a factor in Ms. Lauer’s and Mr. Hayden’s decision.

“I didn’t realize where they were coming from.”

The Northeast Kingdom real estate market has climbed out of the toilet, and one of the factors that seems to be driving sales is weather.  Real estate agents say that fear of natural disaster, as well as manmade ones, is sending people to Vermont where water is plentiful and often free, hurricanes are rare, earthquakes are harmless, and, if anything, the growing season is lengthening.

“I’ve actually sold to growers from Georgia because Georgia is too hot to grow in now,” said Cindy Sanville at Century 21 Farm and Forest in Derby.

Ms. Sanville has been a real estate agent for 13 years.  She said a certain type of buyer started appearing soon after Nine Eleven — people who were looking for a place out of harm’s way.  That trend has escalated in the wake of all types of disasters, including the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut and Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast last fall, she said.

“It’s almost hysteria,” Ms. Sanville said.  “I’ve had people who wanted to live in the side of a mountain.  People are really looking for a safe place.”

She said recent interest in Vermont real estate is coming from survivalists who want to build bomb shelters and bunkers, people who want to be self-sufficient, grow their own food and live off the grid, others who are uneasy about climate change and what it might mean, and those who are simply looking for a place that feels safe to them.

Following the Sandy Hook school shootings,  “we were swamped with Connecticut people,” Ms. Sanville said.

Vermont, with its nearly nonexistent gun laws, might seem like an odd choice for those concerned about violence, but it does have a low rate of violent crime.

On the other hand, Ms. Sanville said the first thing one buyer asked was where the nearest place to buy ammunition was.

Sugarbushes and agricultural land are hot sellers, she said.  “There are a lot of goat farmers, and growing hops will be a big thing, I think.  There are a lot of diverse growers now, and good agricultural land is being snapped up.”

“People are very well aware of climate change all over the world,” Ms. Sanville said.  “People are absolutely concerned about these things.”

Mr. Hayden and Ms. Lauer said water was a huge consideration in their decision to move to Vermont.  “We’ve seen more rain in the last year than in the last 25 years,” Mr. Hayden said.

The couple lives in a yurt off the grid using solar panels for electricity — for practical as well as philosophical reasons.  They drilled a well, another thing that is difficult to do in Colorado, they said.

“I don’t care how big a house you have, if nothing comes out of the faucet, it’s worthless,” Ms. Lauer said.

Water is becoming a big concern, according to Wade Treadway, a Woodstock realtor.  His website says, “The latest trend that I am seeing is a strong reaction to the obvious changes taking place worldwide due to climate change.  I have in the last two months had three international inquires about properties that started with questions about water.”

 Strong real estate market

Overall, the Northeast Kingdom real estate market is pretty strong at the moment, Ms. Sanville said.  “First of all, I don’t think we had the low like everybody else had in the country.  All in all, the Northeast Kingdom is still a place where people want to be.”

There are still many first-home buyers, and people looking for second homes — the traditional housing market.

“There’s been increased activity in most all sectors of the market, including upper end housing,” said Nicholas Maclure at Century 21 Farm and Forest.  “The mid-range is strong compared to what it has been.”

Mid-range refers to homes in the $250,000 to $500,000 price range, he said.

Mr. Maclure said his office has seen a 35 percent increase in sales from a year ago.

“It’s definitely a bit of a mix,” he said.  “There’s local activity, outside investment, a fairly strong second home market, and there are still those buyers looking in the lesser range.”

However, there is a shortage of good country homes for sale in the under $150,000 price range.  Also, the inventory of nicer in-town homes is sparse, Mr. Maclure said.

It’s been a buyer’s market for quite some time, and still is, he said.  But activity is visibly picking up.  Bill Stenger’s development plans for the Northeast Kingdom are likely a factor, he said.  “With all these things going on, it’s giving some people the idea of appreciation down the road.  People are realizing this may be the time to act.”

What real estate agents agree on is that property that is well kept and reasonably priced will sell.

“For instance, if your house is worth $110,000 and you want $150,000, you’re not going to sell it,” Ms. Sanville said.  “If it’s priced at $109,000, it will sell.”

Mr. Campbell said he believes there has been “a fair amount of price correction, bringing some locals back into the grand scheme of things.”

“Don’t ask for the sky,” said Mick Conley at Conley Country Real Estate.  Property that’s in good condition and fairly priced is what buyers are looking for.

Mr. Conley said his office has been busy lately, an indication that the real estate market is rebounding.  He said he had seven showings on Saturday and two offers on Monday.

He has heard potential buyers talk about Vermont being a safe place with no dangerous weather, but more mention a desire to be safe from crime, Mr. Conley said.  Potential buyers are impressed that many people in Vermont still don’t lock their doors.

For whatever reason, the real estate market has vastly improved from three or four years ago, said Brent Shafer at Coldwell Banker All Seasons Realty.

“In the Burlington area, it’s up 30 percent plus,” he said.  “Watching the multiple listing service a couple of days last week, there were as many properties that went on contract as came on new,” Mr. Shafer said.  “Back four years ago you’d see ten or 15 properties come on and maybe see one or two come under contract.’

Sales in Lyndonville and Burke are strong, he said.  “I’m seeing condos coming and going pretty quickly.”

In Barton 30 properties are currently on the market, Mr. Shafer said.  Only one of those is under contract.  The price range is from $49,000 to $1,895,000, he said.  “Quite a diversity.”

Newport has always been a busy market, he said.

For a seller, the ideal property is a decent country home, priced in the $150,000 range, Mr. Maclure said.  “Or a well kept in-town home that’s well priced in a decent neighborhood.  Keep your home up,” he advises homeowners.  “If you have a decent home at a decent price, you will likely sell it.”

More people are interested in country property than in village homes, Mr. Shafer said.  Retirees tend to prefer village property, but younger people want to be in the country.

For buyers, the prospect of owning a first-time home can be tougher than it once was, although interest rates are low.

In some cases, the problem is not with the buyer; it’s with the house itself and tougher bank standards, Ms. Sanville said.  The lower priced home that some qualified buyers might be able to afford may have problems the lender would want to see remedied.

“You might have some low-interest loans, but you had better have good credit and a house that qualifies,” Ms. Sanville said.  A good spring, foundations…. You’ve got to make sure the roof is good, the wiring is good.”

Real estate agents are a little mixed on what effect Mr. Stenger’s development plans are having.  At the moment, they don’t seem to be having much measurable impact on the real estate market aside from optimism.

Mr. Campbell said he’s surprised that property values in the Jay area have not risen.  Still, if people start to move into the area the law of supply and demand will likely push prices up, he said.

Ms. Sanville said she sees a lot of real estate activity that’s connected to employees of North Country Hospital and the Border Patrol.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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