Pandemic migration fuels Vermont real estate market

By Jack Summersby

Both real estate sales and prices have been increasing in Vermont since March, leaving affordable housing options in short supply. SARAH FAGAN

Building on a strong period of growth, Vermont real estate agents are reporting unusually high consumer interest and record low availability as many rethink their living situations amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Green Mountain state, which has the lowest number of Covid-19 cases of any state, has experienced an influx in population since March, as evidenced by a 70% jump in mail forwarding to the state. Though the jump may be attributed to New Englanders temporarily relocating to second homes to work remotely, some are considering whether “pandemic migration” will combat Vermont’s recent workforce decline. 

Roxanna Emilo, who runs Emilo Real Estate in Middlebury, has noticed a significant uptick in business since the Covid-19 pandemic took shape.

“It’s definitely increased sales in our area,” Emilo said, also identifying a growth in interest from outside Vermont. “I suspect our low rate of Covid here in Vermont is why so many out-of-staters are flocking to Vermont.” She also explained that college graduates are among some of the new customers this year, a demographic that has been targeted by state officials for years.

Nancy Foster, the principal broker at Champlain Valley Properties in Middlebury, estimates that over 50% of recent customers changed or accelerated their plans due to Covid-19. She explained that, as a consequence of Covid-19, “[people] have found they can work from home much better than they ever thought they could.” Many potential customers already have some connections to the state and are now thinking more seriously about purchasing a home, according to Foster.

After suspending normal business in March, the real estate profession has made significant changes to better serve clients during the pandemic. Since the start of a phased reopening, Foster has employed digital technologies to show homes, especially to the increasingly out-of-state customer base. “To compensate for it being a little more difficult to show property, we are doing a lot more videos of houses, taking a lot more photos, encouraging people to use the internet,” Foster said.

Foster added that she has also been using FaceTime to show customers from other states properties in a more interactive manner than traditional photos or videos. 

While interest in Vermont real estate is reportedly especially high, available homes have been harder to come by this year. 

“I’ve never seen an inventory this low,” Emilo said, explaining that it has been difficult to find homes for some types of buyers, although availability varies with price range. “There are just fewer properties on the market than there would be in a normal summer,” she said. 

Foster attributed the low housing stock to additional effects of the pandemic. “There are a lot of people who are not excited about putting their house on the market who might have otherwise done it,” she said. “They don’t really want a bunch of strangers walking through their house, potentially coming with the virus.” 

She also explained that moving is a complex process, and one that people are less likely to undertake in a pandemic. “Those who don’t have to move are not putting their houses on the market,” she said.

Jeff Olson, broker of Addison County Real Estate in Middlebury, identified low interest rates as a major reason for low inventory, as people are buying quickly and keeping up with their mortgages. Olson also emphasized that prices have been rising. 

“There’s hardly nothing in the $200,000 to $300,000 range,” Olson said. “Particularly $300,000 and below is like a desert.” Vermont has been facing an affordable housing crisis for several years now.

While Vermont real estate has become a hot commodity, local real estate agents are not convinced that it will turn around the downtrend in Vermont’s population and workforce. Much of the interest is concerning second homes where professionals can work remotely for the foreseeable future, according to Olson. 

“I’m definitely seeing more out-of-state business, but I’m seeing more people looking for a second home, but not necessarily looking to pull up stakes and move from Brooklyn,” Olson said. “The majority seem to be people looking for a place to escape to if they need to.”  

For those who can secure a property, broadband access is often a necessity. “The people who are looking for second homes are also very interested in the internet capabilities of the house,” Olson said. He also noted that professionals were the main demographic of those looking for second homes. 

Although the global pandemic has made the practice essential, working remotely from Vermont is not a novel concept. In 2018, Governor Phil Scott signed a bill to pay $10,000 dollars to those who move to Vermont and work for an out-of-state employer. As of January 2020, the Remote Worker Grant Program fully depleted its funds and ceased to accept applications. 

Population decline, an issue in Vermont for years, affects many aspects of life. “Most counties in Vermont are losing population, and our schools are suffering,” Olson said, also mentioning the contentious debate over school consolidation. 

Although some are hopeful that Covid-19 will spur Vermont growth in the right direction, Olson isn’t personally seeing signs of lasting growth.

“It was my fondest hope when the market started coming back early in the summer and late spring,” Olson said. “I had hoped that there were whole families just pulling up stakes wherever they were in the city, like Boston or New York, and moving to Vermont. There is some of that, but not as much as I had hoped.”

Both Olson and Foster noted that many customers are buying second homes, and Vermont won’t be their official state of residence. 

When asked about the attractive qualities of living in Vermont, Foster listed safety, space, and a high standard of living. 

“A lot of people don’t have the luxury, but if you do, it’s a very attractive thing to offer,” she said. “It’s a quality of life you can’t get in large cities.”

Emilo expressed similar feelings. “Vermont is a beautiful place to live and raise a family or retire,” she said. “The fact that the Covid is low around here has been a plus.” For Olson, who grew up outside Chicago, Vermont offers incredible recreational opportunities in connected communities.