Cottage Industry | Economy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Economy

Cottage Industry

In a dismal real-estate climate, Vermont's second-home market hits the skids


Published November 19, 2008 at 6:59 a.m.

Drop into the offices of Stratton Town Clerk Kent Young and you won’t see anything resembling a lift line on a snowy February morning. No contractors are lined up to apply for a building permit for a new subdivision; no wealthy out-of-state couples are filing deeds on the new ski condos they purchased on the slopes of Stratton Mountain.

“It’s completely dead. There’s nothing transferring,” says Young, who’s also a town lister and serves on the local planning commission. “I think people are just sitting on [their property] and trying not to sell it for less than they bought it for.”

In Ludlow, another popular southern Vermont resort town, where 84 percent of the housing stock is owned by out-of-state residents, lister Terry Thayne has watched the local market take a slow but steady dive. At this time last year, at least a dozen new homes were under construction on nearby Okemo Mountain. So far in 2008, he says, fewer than six have been built.

“Sales are off substantially, somewhere in the 50 percent neighborhood,” Thayne goes on. “And prices for vacation condos are down 10 to 20 percent.”

Similar trends have been reported in resort towns throughout the state, from Quechee to Jay to Stowe, especially in those communities with the highest percentage of housing stock owned by non-Vermont residents. Conventional wisdom says that in an economic downturn, the vacation-home market is more adversely affected than the primary-housing market, for the obvious reason that vacation homes are luxury items. And, since Vermont has one of the highest state rates of vacation homes in the nation, according to the National Association of Realtors, Vermont’s second-home market has been taking it on the chin.

Phil Dodd, editor and publisher of the bimonthly subscription newsletter Vermont Property Owners Report, says that the anecdotal reports from town clerks around the state are borne out by statewide figures. According to Dodd, over the last four years, the volume of sales for all real- estate transactions, and vacation homes in particular, has been way down.

Hardest hit has been the condo market, both for primary and secondary homes. In the period from June through October, according to Dodd, the median price of a primary-residence condo dropped by 4.3 percent, while vacation-condo prices were down 2.8 percent from the same period a year earlier.

Not surprisingly, the real-estate market in southern Vermont has been more acutely affected. That’s because it’s closer to the large population centers that support the vacation-home market and has a greater ratio of vacation properties to full-time residences. (Dodd prefers the term “vacation properties” to “second homes,” which can be a misnomer. Like John McCain, many vacation-home owners actually have three, four or more homes.)

Vermonters who have trouble scraping together enough money to buy a first home may find themselves reading these figures and thinking, “Cry me a river! So what if a bunch of wealthy doctors, lawyers and investment bankers from Boston and Manhattan can’t afford their weekend ski chalets? What does that have to do with me?”

Plenty, as it turns out. Consider all the property tax revenues that resort towns pay into Vermont’s education coffers, especially since nonresidents pay a higher tax rate than in-staters. Predictably, many of the hardest-hit real-estate markets are near ski resorts, and all have a high percentage of housing stock owned by out-of-state residents. In fact, just seven towns — Stowe, Ludlow, Stratton, Dover, Killington, Winhall and Warren — contribute more than $88 million per year to the state’s education fund, which is more than three times what the Vermont Lottery pitches in. That’s a lot of scratch.

When the vacation-property market dries up, Vermont takes a second financial hit from the decline in transfer-tax revenues — that is, the taxes paid to the state when real property changes hands. Recent figures from the Vermont Department of Taxes show that in the last four years, both the number of transfers (or sales) and the amount of money collected in transfer taxes have declined in communities with the highest concentration of vacation properties.

For example, the ski resort town of Jay reported 119 transfers in 2005, resulting in $229,593 in transfer taxes. In the first 10 months of this year, Jay saw only 72 transfers and $132,616 in transfer taxes.

The same trend shows up in Stowe, Stratton, Killington and Warren. In Killington, the number of property transfers dropped from 408 in 2005 to 204 in 2008. In Stratton, the state took an especially dramatic fiscal hit: Transfer-tax revenues declined from $1.2 million in 2005 to just $33,000 this year.

Still, the experts say, it’s not nearly as bad as it could be. For one thing, the peaks and valleys in Vermont’s vacation-home market aren’t nearly as pronounced as those elsewhere in the country.

Here’s some good news: Dodd at the Vermont Property Owners Report points out that, while the volume of housing sales has gone down in Vermont, home values have not seen a similar decline. During the four-month period from July through October, the median price of a primary house in Vermont rose by 2.5 percent over the same period a year ago, while the median price of a vacation house went up 1.5 percent.

In Warren, which isn’t far from the Sugarbush and Mad River Glen ski resorts, lister Priscilla Robinson has seen something similar: Although sales of existing homes are down “quite a bit” from 2007, especially those of condos owned by out-of-state residents, the values of those properties have held steady. “Every time I think a property value can’t go up,” notes Robinson, who chairs the Warren board of listers, “it usually sells for higher.”

Ditto for Stowe, says Town Manager Charles Stafford, who reports that home prices in both the primary and secondary markets are holding steady, even as the number of building permits has dropped. In fact, Stowe usually projects a 2 to 4 percent annual growth in its grand list. This year, the town is budgeting “more conservatively,” Stafford says, which means it still expects a 2 percent growth rate.

Why are Vermont’s vacation-home prices holding firm? For several reasons. Unlike other states, Vermont has a diverse vacation-home market, composed of small hunting camps, fishing cabins, ski chalets, converted farmhouses and large waterfront villas. In fact, gathering data on Green Mountain “vacation homes” can be difficult: Many towns define them differently, and some properties alternate between use as first and second homes.

Nick Levlocke is chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Quechee Lakes Development Company. With more than 1300 private residences, nearly 75 percent of which are owned by out-of-state residents, Quechee Lakes is one of the largest and most exclusive vacation-home communities in the state.

Levlocke admits that when it comes to new home sales, his company is in a “hunker-down mode,” trying to ride out the current economic storm. But he insists he hasn’t seen the price of units in Quechee — which start at about $450,000 — decline much, if at all.

“We still feel like there are some great values here in Quechee, and we’re not going to sell ourselves short today,” he says. “We really want to preserve the value of what we have.

“Vermont,” Levlocke adds, “is better off because Vermont sells itself, with its natural beauty and everything else it has to offer. We just have to get folks up here.”

In fact, several people interviewed for this story expressed confidence that, despite the dark economic skies, Vermont is better positioned than other states to weather the recession.

Joe Sinagra is executive officer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont. He thinks that Vermonters tend to be more fiscally conservative than people in other states and hence didn’t get suckered into the subprime housing mess. Likewise, though Sinagra isn’t exactly a cheerleader for Vermont’s “tight permitting rules,” he admits they may have prevented overbuilding in the housing market.

“Our members didn’t have the glory that their counterparts in Florida and Arizona did two or three years ago in terms of profits,” Sinagra says. “But in turn, they’re not facing the same challenges as their counterparts are today.”

Sinagra isn’t ignoring the economic hit that many of his members have taken, be they small remodelers or developers of million-dollar vacation homes. “The spec market has gone down to virtually nonexistent,” he acknowledges. “But I think it’s forcing all the businesses to re-evaluate the type of work they do, and focus on what they do well.”

In Ludlow, Thayne, who spent 25 years in real estate in southern Vermont, is taking the long view. Sure, the vacation-home market may be down, he says, but, like all business cycles, this one will turn around. And, as in any sales climate, it’s all about location.

“If something is near a ski trail or a lake and priced where it should be, it’ll trade,” he says. “It might take a while, but it’ll sell.”