CONWAY — Location, location, location.
That’s the triple-word mantra of the real estate world. Though there is disagreement about the term’s origin — perhaps it was published in the Chicago Tribune in 1926, or perhaps coined by Lord Harold Samuel in Britain 1944 — one thing is for sure: Our location is drawing buyers to the Granite State in droves.
According to the New Hampshire Realtors’ August report, the actual number of sales were slightly down from the same month last year. However, this August’s $800 million total — with properties having a median selling price of $349,450 — represents the highest sales month in the state’s history.
Carroll and Coos County are very much part of this boom. NHR’s August New Hampshire Market Data Snapshot, which compares sales to August 2019, shows that the median sales price for single-family residences in Carroll County was $294,250, up 13.2 percent year over year.
The county reported $63 million in property sales, up 45.1 percent. Sales that closed totaled 150, up 11.9 percent; and pending sales numbering 191 were up 45.8 percent.
Coos County had a median sales price of $130,000, up 23.8 percent; $12 million in sales, up 50.6 percent; closed sales of 71, up 24.6 percent; and pending sales, up 101, or 110.4 percent.
The robust market raises the following questions that are being heard around the Mount Washington Valley: How much of the new activity is being driven by the coronavirus pandemic? Who, exactly, is moving into our villages and towns, and will they stay? And how healthy is lending in today’s new realty reality?
Here’s a look at the impact and what’s driving the phenomena.
1. Supply and demand
“There is such little inventory. People (buyers) are out digging at a frantic pace,” stated Evelyn Whelton, retail lending sales manager of the Bank of New Hampshire.
Brenda Leavitt, managing partner for Badger Realty, with offices in North Conway, Jackson and Berlin, provided a snapshot of recent homes for sale: Albany, one home; Bartlett, 14; the Conways, 27, with five at Kearsarge Brook condominiums at Cranmore Mountain Resort, two new builds and one mobile home; Eaton, three homes; Hale’s Location and Hart’s Location, zero; Jackson, seven; Madison, three; Tamworth, 21; and across the border in Maine, Fryeburg, 11; and Brownfield, six.
Leavitt believes several factors are influencing the lack of inventory in this market.
“Some people decided they were ready to stay put. Other sellers didn’t want people in their homes, so they pulled their property. Others didn’t want to go out looking; they also pulled their property,” she said.
Josh Brustin, owner/principal broker of Pinkham Real Estate in North Conway, said: “With COVID-19, there are so many people wanting to get away from the cities and purchase a place here. And the people who have homes here think it is a safe haven. They are living in a place where they want to be. Some have children who are doing remote learning. Even though the home values are high, they are living in a place that feels protected. They are not selling.”
2. Second-home ownership
“The vacation home owner says, ‘I am not selling, I don’t want to be in the city.’ What better environment to hike bike ski, canoe, kayak? This change of mind has contributed to the small inventory,” said Leavitt.
And properties are moving fast. Really fast.
“Homes are selling in the same week they are listed,” stated Jerry Hamanne, a Realtor with Badger Realty in Berlin (in Coos County) and owner of The Inn at Bowman Bed and Breakfast in Randolph.
Hamanne noted that in today’s frenzied market, buyers must act fast.
“Buyers have to have their ducks in a row — to be ready to strike and to be on top of their game,” he said.
“Buyers are getting pre-approved for loans so they are ready to go without contingencies. The rates are very reasonable, lowest interest rates ever.”
3. Low rates
“The mortgage rates are the absolute lowest in our history, running between 3 percent and 3¼ percent, with good credit and no points,” the Bank of New Hampshire’s Whelton explained.
“But every loan price is based on loan characteristics. People can come in with the same debt, same credit, but the difference in loan rate is based on whether this is a single residence, a condominium or HUD property.”
Whelton noted that the rates follow the bond market. The government is investing heavily to help keep rates low, to stimulate volume and, since the pandemic, to stabilize the market.
“Go back to 2006, and I thought the only place rates could go were up,” she said. “In fact, nationwide in August, lenders closed the most mortgages since 2006. In the heyday of the early 2000s, anyone could get a ‘no document’ mortgage. A buyer just said what their income was, and there was no verification; if they had good credit, the loan was granted.
“People took the no-income, no-asset route. We called it NINA. We know that didn’t work out,” Whelton said.
Today, even as unhealthy as a pandemic is, the lending industry has safeguards to remain healthy.
“As a whole, we are much healthier in this downturned economy,” Whelton said. “We have guard rails that didn’t exist in 2006. I can say I make $5,000 a month, but this time around, the banks have to verify. We have to know if this person can pay, and we look at their earnings for a couple of years.”
Whelton noted that the banks have been verifying for the past 10 years. Credit terms have become stricter, minimum acceptable credit scores are higher.
With low inventory, one would think that banks wouldn’t be as busy.
“Not all of our business is purchases; it is refinancing also,” Whelton said. “All lenders are at maximum capacity. Purchases combined with an extremely healthy refinancing market is keeping us so busy.”
Lenders and real estate agents both say it is multigenerational buyers who are scooping up property, but the boom isn’t good for all.
“It is a challenge because the inventory is so low,” said Whelton,
“The younger generation does not have as much disposable income. Let’s say you have a budget and are bidding the same as someone who has 30 years of working. The older buyer goes into their savings for that little extra. It is wonderful to have all these retirees; it is not about who is applying but who is winning,” stated Whelton.
This brings up the issue of affordable housing. Some buyers are being priced out of the market because low inventory translates to higher prices.
“The question of how to get low- to moderate-income housing has been an issue for 15 years,” Whelton said. “Now it has grown more exacerbated with people fleeing cities in large numbers. The key is to find the balance in what the community will look like.”
Realtors say buyers are mixed in age and come from many other places.
“Most people are out-of-towners, trying to get out of the cities, purchasing second homes. They can afford a second home. The prices are around $100,000 in Berlin and of course not comparable to other New Hampshire prices,” stated Hamanne. He added: “This is a real shot in the arm for us.”
4. Working from ... anywhere
Corinne Ray, who owns Ray Realty Keller Williams Lakes and Mountains with husband, Mark Ray, said: “Many people we’ve been in contact with over the past couple of years have been on the fence with buying a vacation home.”
But, she said, “With the time at home during COVID-19, many people have decided there is no reason to wait, and they are pulling the trigger on buying.” She added that their buyers span all ages.
The valley, she said, is attracting those who can work from home.
“People who can work virtually would rather live here. Skiers, in particular, are looking forward to knowing they will have a vacation home for skiing. Especially now since they know the slopes will be open, with restrictions,” Ray said.
As a matter of fact, Ray’s daughter, Lauren Lacy, who can still do her job remotely, is one of the millennial buyers.
Lacy attended college in Maine, lived in San Francisco for five years and then made Boston her home for a year and a half. She now calls Glen home.
“I came up here with my brother, we were living in Boston, and it was his spring break, and the university didn’t go back to in-person classes,” Lacy said. “We stayed. Then I received an email from my landlord asking if I was going to renew my lease.”
That got Lacy thinking.
“I realized that I didn’t want to renew my lease. I enjoyed my college years in Maine, was enjoying the outdoors, being able to social distance and could work remotely,” she said.
“Once I decided not to go back, I had to decide how I would like to stay. It also helped that my parents are Realtors,” noted Lacy, who began looking for a home to buy around June.
“Buying made sense for me. This is an investment, the mortgage payment is less than the rent and I can enjoy hiking, outdoor activities, being in a smaller community. I moved to a city for my job, but I am really not a city girl,” stated Lacy, who is also a new golfer.
Lacy purchased a three-bedroom condominium at Christmas Mountain.
“Home ownership so far has been great,” she said. “It is so nice owning rather than being in an apartment. My move hasn’t impacted my work, I can work remotely,” said Lacy, who works in data engineering for a tech firm.
Though Lacy went to school in Maine and lived in California for five years, she says: “I am excited about winter activities. I will have to grow my winter skin.”
Meanwhile, Baby Boomers Bob and Jane Vanderlin are building a home in Bartlett.
Bob, a recently retired physician from Massachusetts, and Jane, who presently practices nursing in Massachusetts, have been visiting the valley for years and decided to make this their home.
“We have a condominium in Plymouth, Mass., have been visiting here with our blended family — six kids, three grandchildren and numerous dogs — and had been searching for a home for 10 years,” said Jane.
The Vanderlins met Rich and Brenda Leavitt, builder and Realtor, respectively, and fell in love with Rich’s work at Timber Point (on Cranmore Road in North Conway) and bought a weekend home two years ago.
When the pandemic hit, Jane was working in the ICU in Massachusetts and Bob was staying in the valley — as Jane said, enjoying trips to Grant’s Supermarket and the dump.
But the Vanderlins decided they wanted to stay for more than weekends and also wanted to add on a garage.
“We found out the lot was too small to build a garage,” Bob said, adding when they decide to sell, “Our house was never even on the market, an interested buyer came by. I threw out a number and got a full-price offer.”
The Vanderlins are now building a new home with Rich Leavitt to accommodate their big family and their plan for full-time residency.
It turns out Bob’s son bought land at Crown Ridge, which is near Cranmore, and is also building a home for his family.
“My husband loves it here, I love it here and hate to leave. I joined the Jackson Tennis Club and met another nurse. I take walks in Whitaker Woods, volunteer at Believe in Books. I can envision a life here, love the community and feel comfortable,” added Jane.
With the influx of new residents, how might this impact local schools?
Superintendent of SAU 9 Kevin Richard weighed in.
“The dust is still setting. We have students in and out of schools. Four or five second-home owners have indicated they want their children in schools face to face,” he said.
But, he said, it is too soon to tell how that will impact enrollment.
Similarly, in mortgage banking, no predictions yet.
“It feels like we have been in this (pandemic) a long time. The pandemic changed how second-home owners saw how they want to live. Six months does not a trend make, this hasn’t played out yet,” Whelton concluded.