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Area home sales spike as the pandemic pushes people into the Upper Valley

  • Rhonda Robbins unpacks at her new home that Robbins and her husband recently purchased in Quechee, Vt., on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Taking a short break, Rhonda Robbins chats with her daughter Sara Osetek, of New York City, at Robbins's new home in Quechee, Vt., on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Osetek was there to help with the move. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jeff Robbins, of Quechee, Vt., works from home on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Robbins and his wife have recently moved permanently to Quechee from Lexington, Mass. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 8/15/2020 9:46:05 PM
Modified: 8/15/2020 9:46:03 PM

Rhonda Robbins is in her fourth home in 10 months. Thank the Upper Valley real estate boom.

Robbins, and her husband, Jeff, moved into their new house in Quechee Lakes a couple weeks ago. Last year, they sold their Quechee vacation condo and traded up to a larger condo in the planned community. In March, as the coronavirus pandemic got worse, the Robbinses sought refuge at the condo from their home in Lexington, Mass. Then in April they received an unsolicited offer from a stranger to buy their Massachusetts home.

So the Robbinses relocated to Quechee for good — a decision made easier after Jeff’s employer shifted to remote work permanently. The Robbinses had planned to rent out their condo when Rhonda said she found the “house of my dreams” on a 1-acre lot at Quechee Lakes.

“We never got the chance to rent our condo because our Realtor said she already had somebody lined up, sight unseen, no inspection, to buy it,” Rhonda Robbins said.

“I never expected to make our money back so quickly. But, boy, is it busy around here,” she said of condo sales and renovations at Quechee Lakes. “It’s just crazy, crazy, crazy.”

Not since almost 19 years ago, when traumatized New Yorkers swept into northern New England seeking safety in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has there been such a pressing demand for homes in the Upper Valley, according to area real estate brokers.

Although the Upper Valley has had a housing shortage for years, making it difficult for both local and out-of-state residents to find a home to buy or apartment to rent, the pandemic has pulled the supply of homes even tighter.

“There was some real fear out there that when we were going to reopen our doors after the shutdown that nobody would be there. Quite the opposite has happened,” said Laird Bradley, owner of Williamson Group Sotheby’s in Woodstock. “The combination of low interest rates and people seeking safe haven has the market on fire.”

Bradley described a situation that is not uncommon this summer: Last month, he had listed for $397,000 an 1800s cape on High Street in Woodstock Village, which he described as “functional, but with dated systems, fixtures, bathrooms and kitchen.”

Despite the upgrades a new owner would likely need to do, in a single day Bradley showed the property to 10 prospective buyers and received “four offers at or above asking price.”

“All but one buyer was a young couple with children seeking a primary home,” Bradley said. “All had secure, well-paid jobs not linked to the local economy, and one or both of the purchasing couples had the ability to perform most of their work remotely.”

Listings down 50%

Real estate industry sales statistics for the key Upper Valley municipalities of Hanover, Lebanon, Claremont, Hartford and Woodstock bear out the demand for homes from buyers while at the same time showing a correspondingly shrinking number of homes on the market.

For the two months from May 20 to July 20 for homes under $500,000, there were 261 pending sales in those five key communities, up 40% from 187 during the same period last year, according to data compiled by Four Seasons Sotheby’s in Hanover. The number of available homes for sale fell 38% from 224 to 138.

For homes between $500,000 and $1 million, pending sales rocketed up 141% from 22 to 53, and listings plunged 53% from 60 to 28, according to the data.

The imbalance between supply and demand is driving the current frenzied state of the real estate market, said Bruce McLaughry, who heads Sotheby’s office in Hanover. That imbalance — which has persisted for several years in the Upper Valley — has been made more lopsided by the pandemic, he explained.

“We already had extremely low inventory, but what added to it this year is that a lot of sellers who would normally be coming to market are saying they don’t feel comfortable with the COVID virus out there and jumping into the process of moving. So they’re sitting on the sidelines, which has resulted in approximately the 50% drop inventory this year,” McLaughry said.

Meanwhile buyers, who essentially had to sit on their hands during the economic shutdown from March to early May — the time of year when home sales kick into high gear so closings and moves can occur during the summer before the start of the school year — crowded back into the market once travel and other restrictions eased in the second half of May.

“We’ve had a whole year jammed into a three-month span,” McLaughry said. “If something comes on the market and is even reasonably teed up for sale, multiple people will jump on it and make offers.”

Kasia Butterfield, a real estate agent who specializes in the Quechee Lakes market and represented the Robbinses in the sale of their condo, said the number of listings and pending sales in Quechee Lakes this year is about at the same level it was last year.

Instead, she said, the telling difference is how quickly homes are selling.

In Quechee Lakes, during the first seven months of the year the median number of days between when a property was listed before it sold was 67 days. Since January, the median number of days on the market has been more than halved, to 31 days.

“If something comes on the market and it’s fairly priced, we generally get multiple offers and they sell within a day. That’s where the real difference is,” Butterfield said.

Room at the inn

The paucity of homes on the market also means that many hopeful buyers are frustrated in their attempts to find one.

Rachel Keyser, who works in recruitment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, sold her condo of 25 years at Quechee Lakes last October three weeks after putting it on the market. She put her furniture in storage and moved into White River Inn & Suites in White River Junction for what she thought was going to be a short-term stay.

“My plan was to go to an over-55 community,” Keyser said, but COVID-19 has derailed those plans as the new units she was hoping would be built at Quail Hollow in Lebanon got scuttled.

“I thought I’d be here temporarily,” she said of what she calls her 600-square-foot “condo-tel” at White River Inn. “Lo and behold there is nothing available. I’ve been here 10 months and I think I’m going to be here through the winter now.”

Nevertheless, Keyser said she’s “really happy” at the inn. “It has a pool. They serve breakfast. Or did until they closed the pool in March and stopped serving breakfast.”

Student enrollment spikes as families seek pandemic refuge

The impact of urban and suburban flight is clear beyond real estate sales numbers, and it’s leaving many public services adjusting to the influx of people into the Upper Valley.

A number of elementary schools are registering a substantial uptick in enrollment for fall classes as families flee densely populated for the more open rural communities.

Grantham Village School, which last year started with 240 students, is expecting this year to start with 275 students for the fall semester. Sydney Leggett, superintendent of Grantham School District, said a portion of those students are residents of Eastman, which is known to have an active rental market.

She noted the Grantham Village School is fielding near daily inquires from parents outside the district asking whether the school takes tuition-paying students (it doesn’t).

Maggie Mills, principal of Woodstock Elementary School, said Woodstock typically enrolls six to 10 new students annually but this year is expecting “at least 20” new kids in school, boosting the enrollment from 300 to 320. And she knows the reason for the increase.

Mills said she doesn’t foresee a problem accommodating the increased number of new enrollments, since 30 students have already opted for the at-home learning option and Woodstock Elementary will host only half of students on campus at a time.

“Some families have pretty explicitly indicated it’s COVID-related,” Mills said. “They may be coming from a place where school is not opening at all and they want in-person instruction opportunities. ... The numbers in Vermont look a lot less alarming in virus factors.”

Pushed by the pandemic

The Ralphs are one such family nudged north by COVID-19. They closed on a new home in Woodstock last month and will be enrolling a daughter in pre-K at Woodstock Elementary.

They’re relocating from Southwick, Mass., and are currently living at their condo in Quechee Lakes while their village property undergoes construction of an addition.

Marianne Ralph, a former school counselor, and her husband, Brett, who owns an insurance and financial services business, have had their eye on moving to Woodstock for several years “but COVID gave us the push we needed,” Marianne said.

“We love the area and all it has to offer year-round for our kids to grow up,” she said.

She said her husband can do a lot of his work remotely and will need to commute to Massachusetts only a day or two a week.

“He realized how much he can do from home, and that made the transition a lot easier,” Marianne Ralph said.

She anticipates life in Vermont will be less restricted than it was in Massachusetts where they were “stuck at home with two kids (during COVID-19) and envisioning being in a community where there is so much to do at our fingertips.”

In neighboring Barnard, newly transplanted Coloradans Lindsey and Ben Lowrance earlier this month moved into their new 7-acre property “with views.” They’d been weighing a move to Vermont from their home an hour outside Denver so they could “have more yard, grow our own food and live more sustainably,” Lindsey Lowrance said. “Then COVID pushed things.”

So they closed on the sale of their house and packed their three kids — one age 6 and twins 2½ years old — and drove across the country in a camper until they reached Braintree, Vt., where they self-quarantined for two weeks before moving into their new home.

They studied different communities but decided on the Upper Valley “specifically because we can work remotely from here, the schools are great and there’s great (ECFiber) internet,” said Lindsey Lowrance, a life coach and therapist and whose husband is a software engineer with a tech company.

Now they are exploring nature and getting to know their new town with a general store that sells ice cream out of the window.

“We got lucky. Everything fell into place,” Lowrance said. “It’s everything we wanted it to be.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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