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The New 'Beckoning Country'? City Buyers Eye Vermont Property As COVID Sanctuary

A grid of nine photos of houses.
Screenshot
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Four Seasons Sotheby's International Realty
A screenshot of some South Burlington properties listed on the Four Seasons Sotheby's International Realty website. Vermont Realtors report a surge in interest from out-of-state, city buyers.

Vermont has one of the lowest rates of coronavirus infections in the country. People from more urban and more infected areas have noticed, and real estate agents report a surge in interest in Vermont property.

Out-of-state buyers are looking for a safe and relatively disease-free place to live, a trend spurred in part because many more people can now work from home.

But to actually walk through a house you want to buy these days, you have to live here, or self-quarantine for two weeks before you can physically check out the kitchen and closets.

So realtors are using promotional videos, FaceTime to show property, even 3-D digital displays that allow prospective buyers to “walk though” rooms.

Even with the restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, real estate agents say they’re getting more inquiries about Vermont property from out-of-staters.

“Definite interest, yes,” said Gayle Oberg, who owns Little River Realty in Stowe. "People are calling and asking if they can’t just drive up for the day to look at real estate.”

In fact, rules imposed under the state of emergency bar customers from a making a day trip to shop for real estate. So Oberg said some buyers have signed purchase contracts without seeing the property.

"We're seeing people that want to come here and be in a safe environment, a healthy environment." — Gayle Oberg, Little River Realty

Others who had already sheltered here for weeks or months in rental property or with friends have realized they can do their work remotely without moving back to the city.

“We’re seeing people that want to come here, and be in a safe environment, a healthy environment and then combining it now with the fact that they can work, it's going to open a lot of Vermont to people that may come here four days a week,” Oberg said.

She added: “Maybe they'll move here. You know, I'm wondering if the home in Vermont doesn’t become their primary and their home in the metropolitan area might be downsized and become more of a second home.”

At Mad River Valley Real Estate, broker Erik Reisner has also seen an uptick in business from those seeking corona-safe zones.

“It’s similar to the post-9/11 effect, I’ll call it,” he said. “You know, where we saw the number of students in our local schools rise, post-9/11, due to families moving out of more metropolitan areas.”

More from VPR: How To Sell A House In A Pandemic

Like Oberg in Stowe, Reisner said it’s hard to quantify how much of his clients' interest is due to COVID concerns. But he says he and other real estate agents in the Mad River Valley are getting a lot of calls from seasonal visitors to the resort community who now want to buy property and move here permanently.

“I guess I’m making an assumption that it’s the pandemic, but that’s probably the driving factor,” he said. “It may have been a dream for quite some time, but then what makes you go from dreaming to really looking to make the move?”

For example, Resiner was getting ready last week to give prospective buyers from Massachusetts a virtual, online tour of a place in the valley. They had decided to move to Vermont. The choice was made easier by the new COVID reality of working from home.

“Whether you’re working from home in a suburb of a major city or working from home in Vermont, as long as you have good internet access, you can do it either way,” he said.

"It's similar to the post-9/11 effect." — Erik Reisner, Mad River Valley Real Estate

At Four Seasons Sotheby’s International Realty, brokers can use software to see where the web searches of listings some from. CEO Staige Davis shared a screen with the data on a Zoom call last week, and ticked through some of the locations.

“New York City, Boston, Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., all on the first page,” he said, scrolling down the list. “Here's Los Angeles, Brookline, Cambridge, Mass… So you can see 757 unique visitors. Go down the page, there's Boston.”

His company lists property all over Vermont and New Hampshire. Davis said even before the virus hit, the residential real estate market was strong because of low interest rates and low inventory.

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“Lower, mid and a little above that price range, it’s a very hot market if the property is priced right,” he said. “We had, I want to say, on one property last week, a dozen offers — on one house.”

The COVID crisis has made Vermont even more attractive to people looking for a rural sanctuary. Davis said one buyer from Florida signed a seven-figure contract recently to buy a house and land in the Northeast Kingdom, sight unseen.

“He’s never been there,” he said. “And there are numerous examples of that.”

Davis also sees comparisons to the post 9/11 boom in Vermont real estate – with one exception.

“After 9/11, we didn’t see a lot of people fleeing urban centers. We saw people fleeing New York, as much as anyplace,” he said. “Now it’s clearly, New York is in there, but we’re seeing LA, we’re seeing Boston.”

"After 9/11 we didn't see a lot of people fleeing urban centers. We saw people fleeing New York... Now New York is in there, but we're seeing LA, we’re seeing Boston." — Staige Davis, Four Seasons Sotheby's International Realty

The company has vastly expanded its use of videos and other digital platforms to display property.

“When we started the COVID process, here we had on our web site probably 20 videos, we now have 125,” he said. “And it’s really helping us. A lot of people are doing virtual open houses. We’ve shown houses on Facetime, we’ve shown houses on Skype.”

Davis expects even more sales to out-of-state buyers once the state opens up more to visitors and agents can actually walk customers around the property.

With interest rates still low, “it’s a good time to buy,” he said. “My perception is that we will have a boom here when the restrictions are relaxed.”

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