In early April, Mark Kanter knew a real estate sea change was coming, even as Covid-19 cases were spiking in the New York City area and locally. A member since 2016 of the Maverick Team at the Woodstock division of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, Kanter had just been designated an essential worker, and was helping a family sell their West Hurley home. He describes the one-acre parcel as “a nicely renovated 70s split level Brady Bunch house with an art studio out back.” He’d counseled them to sell at $449,000, the high end of market expectations. Kanter says they would’ve been delighted to get $429,000.
But those market expectations were pre-Pandemic Exodus.
“On Wednesday, we listed it at 449,” he says. “By Sunday we had eight offers, and the sellers accepted just over $500,000. If they listed today, they could probably sell it for $560,000.”
Kanter says this sale was “a trumpet blast” to the Ulster County marketplace. Even though the Maverick Team had been sweating a $2 million dollar loss of gross sales following the March shutdown and subsequent panic, as soon as protocols were in place, a new normal was suddenly afoot. Overnight, even with Covid-19 restrictions – masks, self-directed house tours, virtual closings – Ulster County real estate became a high pressure playing field of routine bidding wars, multiple offers over a short time period – usually forty-eight hours – and sellers netting significantly more than asking price, as much as $100,000 over. This trend continues, with no sign of letup.
“It’s very intense,” says fellow Maverick Team realtor of almost two years Laurie Osmond. “I’ve been talking to agents who’ve been doing this for twenty years, and they’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just crazy.”
Ellen Osgood concurs. In 15 years of selling homes with the Woodstock branch of Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty, she maintains nothing compares to the current frenzy. “Buyers are even waiving inspections!” she says.
Osgood’s clients are routinely breaking leases to escape New York. One had lived in a Manhattan building with 300 apartments, where 40 broke leases in May alone. Not surprisingly, Ulster County rentals that haven’t been snapped up have dramatically escalated in price.
As of this past April, according to the National Association of Realtors, Ulster County house prices were – and remain – 17.6 percent higher than April of 2019. That’s the biggest year-over-year price increase in the United States. Not coincidentally, after years of struggling to maintain enrollment, local private schools are at or near capacity, even as schooling methods (remote, half-remote, one day a week on-site, etc.) remain in question, and subject to sudden change. Osmond, also president of the Onteora School Board, says an uptick in public school enrollment is expected. And for parents who must work away from home while children learn via computer screen, ads seeking au pairs are becoming commonplace.
“It’s like Williamsburg in the 90s,” says realtor Amy Rosen, in her third year at Phoenicia’s Ruth Gale Realty. “Potential buyers ask me if they will be paying too much, and if the value will hold, and I tell them: ‘Put it this way, I’ve received over ten times as many calls as I usually do, I’ve sold a lot of houses this year, and I still have a long list of interested buyers.’”
Although real estate business typically slows down in winter, no realtor thinks that will be the case going forward. Says Rosen, “Even if we get a second wave of Covid, and things shut down again, I still expect to be taking calls and setting up showings, even if virtual.”
Rosen, who recently helped a buyer navigate an unheard-of 22 bids on a West Hurley property (which she ultimately won), says buyers now largely comprise millennials, young families, couples just starting out, and, for the first time in her career, single people. Most, but not all, are from the New York City area, and not looking for a second home, but want to put down roots. Or, as she calls it, “Green Acres-ing it.”
“Since they’re skipping the usual ‘weekender phase,’” she says, “I make sure to tell them how to keep bears out of their trash, to avoid drama with their neighbors. Some don’t know what a septic is.”
Osgood sees a notable increase in couples with young children looking for homes in the $350,000 to $550,000 range, and they’re far less choosy. “Buyers used to be much more selective,” she says. “But now they’re not as demanding, just to get a home up here.”
The closest analogue to the Pandemic Exodus is the Post-9/11 Exodus, when New Yorkers fearing terrorism headed for the hills (and the suburbs). Since April, that shift has paled in comparison to the Pandemic Exodus. According to a study by the NYC Department of City Planning, about 4,500 people fled New York after 9/11. Whereas the New York Times recently reported that, between March 1 and May 1, roughly 420,000 people – mostly the wealthiest – left the Big Apple. Quite a few headed straight for the Catskills, and they’ve kept coming.
For a lot of these home-seekers, the combination of wealth and, crucially, technology aided their flight, specifically Zoom, Google Hangout, Skype, FaceTime, et al. Such platforms did not exist in 2001.
Osmond says the newfound ability to work efficiently – sometimes more efficiently – from a WiFi-enabled home has allowed many more buyers to not only leave cramped apartments and offices, but to completely reboot in houses farther afield from – and cheaper than – the Woodstock area; towns like Catskill, Athens, Durham, and Coxsackie. “People are finding a couple more Thruway exits more acceptable now,” she says. “Especially when they’re not just looking for a weekend place, but a chance to resettle.”
Time was, realtors were accustomed to a more leisurely pace. As Osmond says, “You would map out an itinerary with potential buyers, who would then come up, and you see maybe 12 homes over a weekend. Maybe bid on one. But now you’re entering an available home knowing you’re entering a bidding war. Or your offer is a backup in case an existing offer falls through. It can get very emotional.”
Although significant money is being made, the toll of that intense emotional rollercoaster can be high, and not just for buyers and sellers.
“It’s very important for me to keep life in balance,” Osmond says. She has not mowed her lawn in a month, or been on her bike much, to her dismay. “You don’t want to burn out. You need to take time to exercise, step away from the computer, do something to rejuvenate.”
Rosen concurs on the self-care tip, and adds a little wistfully how a downside of the current boom is a tonal change in the experience of helping someone sell or buy a home: “One of the reasons I enjoy doing this is getting to know people, becoming friends, helping people with this major step. I helped a seven-generation local buy a house in Boiceville last year, which they love. We hit it off, and they’re now asking me to help their daughter buy her first house nearby with the same $250,000 budget. It’s going to be brutal. Those houses are rare. I’ve been saying ‘300K is the new 200K.’”
Osmond stresses that inevitable other-izing of the newcomers by locals is not only unfortunate, but, as borne out by Rosen’s fruitful relationship with her longtime local Boiceville clients, such scapegoating is a misrepresentation of the boom.
“It’s not just people from the city,” Osmond says. “Everyone is doing what they can to make as much money as they can, because we’re in deep trouble economically. Sometimes sellers want to downsize, move to be near family; and buyers aren’t the stereotype of someone who wants to just build the swimming pool and close the gate. Most genuinely love it here, they want to get involved in the schools, patronize local businesses. There’s been a lot of pressure lately, but it’s still a pleasure to do business with people. They’re all nice, and interesting. We often become friends, and stay in touch. It’s being depicted as a money-grabbing frenzy, but it’s really people just moving on to another stage of their lives, all amplified by the urgency of the pandemic.”