All of a sudden, the “For Sale” signs are out.
As noted in these pages in recent days, there is a “land grab” taking place across Vermont and the Northeast in general. Real estate agents are reporting out-of-state buyers — many of them from COVID-ravaged areas in and around Boston and New York City — are buying up places in our rural little state with the enviable COVID-related numbers.
A buzz has been created as a result. Some of it is real. Some of it is imagined. All of it has implications in the short- and long-term.
First, the reality: There are a lot of properties, including undeveloped land, on the market currently. With word out there that so many sales are taking place, sellers are inflating prices. And land and homes are being bought up for those higher prices.
That may cross over a bit into the “imagined.” There are anecdotes circulating that land and homes under $500,000 are, in some cases, moving sight unseen — a no-no in real estate because it leaves buyers and sellers vulnerable to liability at a lot of levels. There are also anecdotes of private sales happening, and even Vermont homeowners representing themselves on various online marketplaces, including social media. That is not imagined, but closer to “we could not imagine.”
And while it is good news that Vermont is seeing a surge in home and land sales, there are implications that need to be considered.
Yes, towns and cities (and the state) will see more money in their coffers as a result of a bump in real estate taxes, transaction fees, and a bump in the grand list, especially if land sales lead to new construction. We hope that the buyers are young families, so enrollments go up in our public school system. However, an increase in population, while excellent for the local and state economies, will also put a burden on town services and infrastructure.
Those are the kinds of problems we want to have here in Vermont: sorting out supply and demand.
But there is another factor that needs to be considered.
Even with Act 250 and zoning laws to keep growth from happening too fast (and in a measured sort of way), there is the potential for a significant change to Vermont’s landscape. Literally.
The patchwork of fields and open spaces we are so used to driving that equation we call “Our Quality of Life” may have to give way to progress in the form of development. And many Vermonters resist that.
But the pandemic has pulled many triggers on us as a state. And it has — as we have noted here many times now — that something here has to change. There is no option. We cannot maintain a status quo of keep our state pristine and undeveloped without developing it in order to pay for the things we need — and want. Standing still is not a feasible strategy. In fact, some would argue that Vermont has accepted a status quo for far too long, and that it should have been doing more — in government, in business, through higher education, and through policies — to grow Vermont a little at a time, not just in the cluster of activity that has become Chittenden County.
But we need to look carefully at what happened there. In a generation, it became the center of population, commerce, manufacturing and more. It is home to Vermont’s equivalent of sprawl, and its home prices and rental prices are the highest in the state, in part because the incomes there allow for it. The rest of Vermont looks on — some people disgusted that the old farm fields are now full of cul de sacs and cookie-cutter houses; others, grateful to have the centers of commerce, culture and activity.
Depending on who is buying up Vermont’s homes and land, we very well could see a dramatic shift.
It is welcome. But change is hard. And any solution that puts a shoulder into getting the state’s economy rolling (even without a pandemic, which has only made our situation seem more dire and urgent) is daunting.
As we see our property values adjust for inflated home purchases, we need to ponder at the town level, in the State House, and in the administration, what kind of a Vermont do we want moving forward?
We know part of that answer is: progress.
But the decisions we start to make now, in these baby steps of recovery, down the long road of what is likely to be a recession for our state, will matter greatly. And we must be thinking about them with eyes wide open and be mindful that our knee-jerk reaction may not be the best answer after all.