Your second home: Ski country offers a respite, but not from real estate competition

Buying Fall House Hunt News
From the Berkshires to the Green and White mountains to western Maine, it’s the same story: Real estate is hot. Adobe Stock

Matt Bloomer had dreamed of owning a ski house ever since he worked at a snowboard shop during college — a job that allowed him to ski for free at resorts all over New England. And after a family vacation to Mount Snow in southern Vermont a few years ago, he and his family were sold on the area.

“I like the restaurants, I like the access to the VAST [Vermont Association of Snow Travelers] snowmobile trails, and it’s just short enough a ride to handle a kid’s attention without being too long,’’ he said. “And my kids loved it, most of all.’’

After that trip, Bloomer started paying closer attention to the second-home market nearby — and this fall, his longtime dream of owning a ski house came true. “This is the year we decided we wanted to get a place — which was also, unfortunately, the year everybody else decided to get a place,’’ he said with a wry laugh. In years past, he watched properties linger for months before selling; this year, homes were flying off the market in a matter of days.

Bloomer’s realtor, Adam Palmiter, advises his buyers to be patient. Because while new listings continue to hit the market, it’s still not enough to keep up with demand. “Every day I get at least five to 10 people e-mailing me that are totally new to the market,’’ said Palmiter, of Berkley & Veller Greenwood Country Realtors. “We’re not yet at a point where inventory has kind of caught up to the buyers.’’

At the same time, buyers are anxious. It takes about eight weeks to close on a property now, Palmiter said, because appraisers and attorneys are so busy; skiers want to get into a place before the snow flies. And with so many homeowners using their properties more themselves — working remotely from their Vermont home, say, instead of renting it out to skiers — “there’s negligible rental inventory for seasonal rentals,’’ Palmiter said, “which means that people who want to have a place for the season almost have to buy in order to have something locked up.’’

From the Berkshires to the Green and White mountains to western Maine, it’s the same story. Ski country may offer a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life, but not from its fast-paced real estate market.

While Bloomer didn’t relish wading into a seller’s market in the mountains, the Natick resident was no stranger to bidding wars. “I said, OK, I think we’re going to have to use the old ‘Boston Strategy’ here and kind of go in pretty aggressive with our offer,’’ he said, “which ultimately got us the place that we wanted.’’ The family purchased a four-bedroom post-and-beam house on an acre, complete with a sledding hill, which Bloomer’s kids are excited about. “They’re over the moon about it.’’

“It’s a very tight market,’’ said Cassie Mason, broker at Cassie Mason Real Estate in Bethel, Maine, near Sunday River. “Pre-COVID, 180 days was our average days on market,’’ Mason said. But from June 1 through Sept. 30, homes listed in Bethel, Newry, and Greenwood sold in just 22 days on average, she said.

It’s not just a COVID-inspired, work-from-nature restlessness pushing up prices near ski resorts. The popularity of short-term rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO has been luring a new set of second-home buyers to ski towns. “Even before the pandemic, I’d say within the last three to five years, buyers have been up against investors who historically wouldn’t have considered owning a house so far away up in western Maine,’’ Mason said. But the fact that a vacation home, rented out nightly or weekly, can not only pay for itself but even be a profitable investment, she said, “has really shifted our buyer profiles.’’

With more people able to work remotely, and with many ski towns evolving into four-season destinations, the pressure on these housing markets has only increased. In Stowe, Vt., inventory was slim even before the pandemic, but COVID ratcheted up the competition to new heights. “More than ever here, I am getting buyers from all over the country,’’ said Craig Santenello, owner-broker at Vermont Life Realtors. “Historically, the majority of buyers were from Boston, New York, Montreal. Now people are competing with … a lot of Californians, Texans, a lot of people from Chicago, from the South,’’ he said.

“Stowe used to be really quiet in the fall and in the spring, the restaurants would shut down, it was just kind of quiet. And now those shoulder seasons have almost evaporated,’’ Santenello added.

The same thing has happened around Sunday River, Mason said, with the popularity of mountain biking and trail networks the Mahoosuc Land Trust created. “The mountain biking community has blown up since Mount Abram put in their mountain bike park,’’ she said. “I would be surprised if their revenue isn’t pretty parallel to what they do in winter.’’

The competition around Sunday River isn’t quite as dramatic as it was a year ago, Mason said, when buyers were making fierce offers sight-unseen with no contingencies. “We don’t have that sort of chaos anymore. And I think we’ve reached kind of our ceiling for now with where we can push pricing,’’ Mason said. “But there are still enough buyers out there and there’s still enough interest that we are having multiple offers on most fairly priced listings — and ‘fairly’ means the new fair.’’ Homes that used to sell in the $500,000s are now solidly in the $800,000s, she said.

‘Historically, the majority of buyers were from Boston, New York, Montreal. Now people are competing with … a lot of Californians, Texans, a lot of people from Chicago, from the South.’ — CRAIG SANTENELLO, broker

Across the state line, in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley, prices have also boarded a high-speed quad chair in what was traditionally a more affordable second-home market. “Year over year, pricing is up 30 percent in the valley — and that’s, I think, up 30 percent from the year before that,’’ said Josh Brustin, owner/principal broker at Pinkham Real Estate in North Conway. “Buyers two years ago who would have been, for example, in the under-$300,000 price range, which would have been kind of your standard second-home purchase … that price point is now $100,000 to $150,000 more.’’

The high-altitude prices near Cranmore and Attitash have put farther-flung destinations on the map for White Mountain home buyers, Brustin said. “Even places like Gorham, New Hampshire — which is 40 minutes away [from North Conway], you have to go through a notch to get there — whereas a year ago it seemed like from here to Mars, right now it seems very much on the radar,’’ Brustin said. “It’s more affordable, you’re still very close to a number of ski areas. It has the feel of what North Conway may have looked like 20 years ago.’’

Palmiter is seeing a similar phenomenon around Mount Snow. “Basically if you draw a circle around the primary towns of Dover and Wilmington, everything on the outskirts is also getting a bit of a bump,’’ he said. And outside Stowe Village, Santenello said, sales in nearby Waterbury have skyrocketed, with median prices up almost 60 percent. Meanwhile, buyers discouraged by the low inventory are thinking even further outside the box. “Land sales are like I’ve never seen before,’’ he said.

With most homes in Stowe selling in about 10 days, buyers need to be “flexible and fluid’’ if they want to win a bid, Santenello said. When a new listing pops onto the market, he’ll generally tour it and send a video to his buyers; if they’re interested, he recommends they drive up to see it the very next day. “Being here in person is important,’’ he said. While sight-unseen offers were common during the early days of the pandemic, enough sales were scuttled by backpedaling buyers that sellers are now wary of such offers, he said.

And don’t forget to bring cash. “One of the biggest things I’m finding right now is the abundance of cash, more so than I’ve ever seen in the market here,’’ Santenello said. “Most every property is a multiple-offer situation. And within those multiple offers, in most cases, a few of those are cash. So buyers are having to get very creative in their contracts with contingencies, what they’re willing to forgo, what they feel comfortable with.’’

Santenello said that while a home inspection clause can be a deal-killer in such a hot market, it’s also a risky proposition in the Green Mountain State. “Vermont’s like the Wild West of real estate,’’ he said. “You don’t even have to have a license to be a builder here … there are a lot of pitfalls.’’ So Santenello often adds language permitting “quasi-inspections’’ of at least the big-ticket items, such as the boiler, heating system, and chimneys.

And the septic system. Unlike Massachusetts, which since 1995 has required a home’s septic system to pass a Title V inspection before being sold, Vermont had no state oversight of waste systems until 2007. So Santenello always has clients conduct a septic scope to unearth potential issues — such as the “septic tank’’ Santenello once encountered that was actually an old Volkswagen Bug. “It was buried with a pipe in it,’’ he said. “That was the dry well.’’

Still, Santenello said, there’s no denying the call of the mountains. “I tell all my buyers, once they close, I say, ‘I’ll give you about four years before you move up here full time,’ ’’ he said. “And most of the time I’m right.’’

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.