URBAN FLIGHT TO MOUNTAIN RESORT TOWNS

Urbanites fleeing cities for homes in the hills are pulling mountain resort real estate out of a pandemic slump.

Inventories are dwindling, prices are soaring and resort-town schools are seeing enrollment climb as second-home owners and newcomers settle in places like Steamboat Springs, Vail, Crested Butte, Telluride and Aspen.

“This event is a trigger for buying. People who have been on the fence are buying. People who have been spending time here for years are moving into bigger properties,” said Estin, noting that the high-end rental market also is exploding as visitors prolong their summer vacation into fall and winter.  

Estin is among dozens of local brokers who spent decades pitching Aspen and Snowmass Village as a safe harbor for investments. For all but a few of those years they were right. Multimillion-dollar homes in Aspen appreciated better than most other investments until the Great Recession, when spectacularly high home prices and a buying frenzy in 2007 collapsed into a glut and a rut that lasted until 2013 in the Roaring Fork Valley. 

But Estin feels something different about this boom. Buyers aren’t parking money as an investment. They are buying homes they plan to move into — and not just for vacations. 

“Everything is going wild right now. People are wanting to get out of the density of the urban environment and they are wanting physical space and safety,” Estin said. “There’s is high uncertainty and insecurity and there is something of a sentiment like, ‘If the whole world crashes and this COVID gets worse and worse, I’d rather be in Aspen than New York City or Miami or Dallas or Houston."

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The year of the second-home owner

The booming mountain market reflects a national trend showing a huge spike in sales in June, snapping a three-month decline. Dwindling inventories and tumbling mortgage rates drove a 21% increase in home sales in June compared with the previous month, according to the monthly summary released Wednesday by the National Association of Realtors. And housing experts expect the trend to continue, pointing to rising mortgage applications and steadily increasing prices.

Heading into this summer, resort communities embraced part-time residents as the economic foil to declining tourism. “The summer of the second-home owner” they called it, sculpting specific campaigns to entice non-resident property owners to come for prolonged stays and help float economies wilting without a steady flow of tourists. Now it’s become the year of the second-home owner.

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From a tourism economy to a “lifestyle” economy

The migration also is filling resort-town schools. Across the high country, school districts and private schools are seeing unprecedented enrollment and interest as a wave of newcomers settle in mountain valleys. 

David Baugh, the superintendent at Aspen School District, said 30 to 35 new students typically enroll each year. This summer, enrollment has soared at the preschool, elementary, middle and high school, and the district is expecting 150 new students.

“They are all ages, but that is about an extra graduating class in a really good year,” Baugh said. “We are of course happy to welcome these folks and I can say anecdotally there are quite a few cars with Texas, New York, California and Arizona tags in town. We have asked all newcomers to self-quarantine for 14 days before entering school.”

Gunnison Watershed District Superintendent Leslie Nichols said her six schools are “braced” for new students this fall. New residents from Golden, Denver, Austin, New York and all over Texas are already visiting her schools. Crested Butte Secondary School, with grades 6 to 12, has 455 students enrolled, up from 431 last year. Crested Butte Elementary is up to 378 students, from 342 last year. For the last several years, growth at Gunnison Watershed District schools has averaged 28 new students a year. 

“The growth already exceeds the typical new enrollment for sure and it’s only July 20,” Nichols said. “We anticipate more.”

Josh Wolman is fielding many calls from families inquiring about spots at Aspen Country Day School. The head of the private school isn’t increasing capacity much — maybe an additional 10 students to last year’s 270 — but his wait list is growing. 

“We are not going to have a school that is overfilled,” Wolman said. “We are managing interest as best we can. We do have twice as many inquiries as last year and that, for us, is a lot. I think people are realizing that Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley offer an outstanding education and a great place to raise children. I think it’s pretty exciting to see the interest.”

Vail Mountain School has the longest wait list in the nearly 60-year-old private school’s history. 

The K-12 Vail Mountain School has enrolled 445 students for the 2020-21 school year, which is maximum capacity. That’s about 20 students more than last year. 

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“We are seeing a lot more interest from people who have decided that Vail is a healthy, safe place to be in these times and they are looking for a good school for their children,” said school spokeswoman Kathleen Hogan. “We have interest and applicants for all grade levels. We are still talking to families and asking them to visit and apply. We have a wait pool. And yes, it’s never been so big.”

Jon Wade, a longtime Steamboat Springs broker, is seeing the pandemic amplifying trends that have been slowly taking shape in Routt County over the last several years. Wade says Steamboat’s slow transition from a resort economy anchored in visiting skiers and tourists to “a lifestyle economy” reliant on a growing number of residents moving to the Yampa River Valley has accelerated with the spread of COVID-19 in urban locations.

Steamboat Springs has a growing population of high-earning, home-based workers who could be anywhere but choose to live in Routt County. That location-neutral workforce is attracting more businesses as industries recognize the value and efficiency of remote working during the pandemic, Wade said. 

After a strong start to the year, real estate activity in Routt County collapsed in April and May. Things picked back up in June, and July has been one of the busiest months ever, Wade said. He expects the busy July will leave the county only 10% behind last year’s record pace. 

“People are wanting to get away from cities,” said Wade, who is offering to waive his sales commission for up to three local families that have to sell because of the pandemic. “More people are realizing they can work from home and instead of coming here for two to four weeks, they are thinking about coming here for two to four months. Or even longer.”

Wade also sees similarities to the booming sales of 2007. But like Aspen’s Estin, Wade sees recent sales activity as “very logical and reasoned,” and unlike the irrational exuberance that fueled the 2007 market. 

“These people who are buying, they want to use the properties. Sure it’s an investment, but they want to be a part of this community,” he said. “They are saying ‘We want to be here for 10 years or longer. If there’s a dip, I’m comfortable with that.’ It feels like people are pursuing their long-term plan to move up here. COVID has pushed them to make that decision now.”

No discounts, little negotiation

Brad Meeks, the superintendent of the Steamboat Springs School District, said fall enrollment remains “a big question.” He has heard about new arrivals but has not seen their numbers on his enrollment charts. 

“We have budgeted for a 5% reduction in enrollment due to the pandemic,” Meeks said. “We will start to get a clear picture in early August.”

Wade said he feels “a duty” to give back by waiving fees for families who may be suffering in the economic collapse surrounding the pandemic. Across the high country, the wave of wealthy COVID-19 refugees could transform local communities in a way that might leave seasonal workers and lower-income locals even more stressed in their search for affordable housing.

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George Harvey has been selling real estate in Telluride since 1984. This year, he saw second-home owners staying in their homes during the off-season after the ski area abruptly closed in mid-March. Students and parents joined grandparents, riding out the quarantine in homes typically used for holidays. 

“Everybody seems to be hiking and enjoying the outdoors at a level I’ve never seen before,” he said. “I think Telluride — like all the resorts in Colorado — was appreciated in a really different and fundamental way during this pandemic.”

Harvey is working with more buyers than ever before. The market is busier than it was in 2007, he said. Buyers are grabbing properties at all levels of the market, he said, from the multimillion-dollar mansions to the tiny condos. 

“There is no question their sense of urgency has changed. If someone has ever said they wished they could spend more time in Telluride, well now they are committed,” Harvey said. “Instead of back home being their base, this is their new base and back home is a place they might visit.”

Real estate sales for the first six months of the year will be about 26% ahead of last year, Harvey said. The number of transactions is up 17%. 

“There are no deals and very little negotiation,” he said. “Demand is just too great right now.”

Jason Blevins
The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com