Telluride. Photo Credit: amedved (iStock).

Telluride. Photo Credit: amedved (iStock).

DENVER (AP) — Prices are at record highs. Supplies of mountain homes for sale have never been lower. Across Colorado’s high country, resort community real estate sales have set records since July. Through October, the total real estate sales from six Colorado resort counties are nearly $1 billion greater than all sales last year.

“It’s Biblical,” George Harvey, who has been selling real estate in Telluride for 37 years, said as he described the sales volume in San Miguel County for the last half of 2020.

Sales in Telluride and Mountain Village, which are on pace to surpass $1 billion in sales for the first time ever, are “fear-and-safety purchasing,” he said.

With inventory at the lowest amount he’s ever seen in Telluride and Mountain Village and prices climbing, the scene mirrors the irrationality of 2007, which preceded a collapse and record foreclosures. This time, any correction will be driven by a lack of homes left to sell, Harvey said.

“I was just on a 30-broker Zoom meeting this morning. All from Telluride. And we all said this: We are going to do less business in the next one to two years. Not because of demand, but because we don’t have enough product left to sell,” Harvey said.

Back in 2007, when mountain real estate was humming with sky-high prices in a frenzied market, high country buyers and brokers assumed national problems would not reach isolated resort communities. But the economic collapse, triggered by suspect lending, did reach the mountains, and the real estate market withered in the Great Recession right along with urban markets.

Once again the mountain market is raging. But there are signs that indicate this time around could be different. There aren’t any sketchy financial schemes propping up lending. The pandemic is shifting priorities as a wave of largely urban residents moves to Colorado’s high country. The newcomers are scooping up primary homes, not just vacation getaways, and they are moving in.

“People were playing with funny money in ’07,” said Gil Fancher, the co-owner of the Vail Real Estate Center. “Now we are seeing people buying because they want to change their life. I do not see us falling off a cliff any time soon.”

— Urban migration hits the high country

Growing waves of urban buyers are scouring the mountains. They started poking around in June and July and swarmed in the fall. September sales volume in Pitkin County, for example, was up 458% from September 2019. October in Eagle County saw sales climb 230% from the previous year. Routt County’s October was up 122%. San Miguel County’s October was up 131%.

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The new buyers — mostly from Denver as well as big cities in Texas, California and Florida — are able to work from home and are maybe not as keen on city life as they once were. And they like bigger homes that have office space and room for large families to not just gather, but live.

Mountain real estate markets do not always follow the trajectory of metro Denver. But this year, they are. The Colorado Association of Realtors reported the 12 months up to October showed the greatest price appreciation for Denver homes — up 21.3% — ever tracked by the association.

The robust home market is reflected nationally as well, as mortgage rates hover near historic lows. Since cratering in May, sales of existing homes climbed every month through October compared with the previous year. The National Association of Realtors reported in October that national home sales volume was peaking along with record-high prices and all-time lows in the supply of homes for sale. But the association fretted over peak prices for building materials, like lumber, suggesting that a lack of new homes could sustain the spike in home prices.

Pitkin County, home to Aspen and long the champion of staggering home prices, recorded 268 sales over $2 million this year through September. The number of deals for homes worth $10 million or more is up four times over the same period last year. Through September, sales volume reached $2.4 billion, up more than 30% over all of 2019’s sales.

The last three months of 2019 real estates sales in Pitkin County reached $509 million. If the pace continues, the county will log sales near or greater than $3 billion in 2020, making not just the largest year ever for Aspen-area real estate but the largest year-over-year increase.

Aspen broker Chris Klug calls it “the great COVID migration.”

“There’s no question Aspen Snowmass and the entire Roaring Fork Valley real estate market benefited from the urban exodus,” said Klug, a former Olympic snowboarder whose Klug Properties sold $206 million in real estate so far in 2020, more than double the goal he set in January. “Remember this is with virtually no activity for two months in the spring. We were just hoping and praying all spring that we’d have a summer selling season. A switch got flipped at the end of June and it’s been all hands on deck ever since.”

Eagle County logged 297 sales of properties for more than $2 million through October. That includes 62 sales of homes for more than $5 million, totaling $607.6 million. The sales this year in Vail Village, where there are three properties for sale priced higher than $30 million, include four homes for more than $20 million and the valley’s highest-ever sale of a $57.25 million Vail home to Boulder biotech entrepreneur Kevin Ness. Total sales in Eagle County through October reached $2.6 billion, eclipsing last year’s record finish.

Ted Steers, Fancher’s partner at the boutique Vail Real Estate Center, said he’s seeing a mix of longtime vacationers, existing owners moving up to larger homes and newcomers buying properties around Vail.

“They are moving assets into something more fun,” Steers said, describing buyers who have recently sold their companies. “They’ve worked hard for a long time and they see this is the time to move into the mountain house.”

— Low inventory driving the market

The 2007 real estate frenzy in the high country was driven by a lot of investors who had access to loans that were not well vetted. Brokers are not seeing that type of buyer this time. Most buyers are moving in, said Jon Wade, with the The Steamboat Group.

And when the mountain real estate market started to slip as the country slid into a recession in 2008 and 2009, early warning signs could be seen in growing inventories of homes for sale and fewer buyers.

The opposite is happening right now.

“We could have our inventory grow by three times, four times, even five times and we would just be back at March or the year before,” Wade said. “This is unprecedented.”

In Telluride, where the supply of homes for sale is at historic lows, the only hope for more homes hitting the market is not coming from builders, but from owners who bought more than a decade ago during the last downturn, said longtime Telluride broker Harvey. Those folks got really good deals and it’s likely the value of their high-country home has doubled. If they cash out, that could open up opportunities for a new wave of buyers, Harvey said.

Steamboat Springs isn’t seeing many locals selling. And as the pandemic shuffles work scenarios and allows more people to work remotely, the Routt County resort town is seeing more location-neutral workers shopping for homes.

The demographics of buyers in counties nearer to metro Denver is shifting, too. Eagle, Grand, Routt and Summit counties have the highest percentage of Front Range buyers in 2020 on record.

Sales in Routt County through October have already eclipsed last year’s record year and homes prices are at all-time highs. According to Land Title’s breakdown, 25% of the 1,435 purchases in Routt County through October were Front Range buyers, up from recent years.

“Even for a city like Denver, which is a really nice city, right, a lot of the people want the hell out of there,” Wade said. “I hear it almost every day. Somebody told me that yesterday. And he lives in Cherry Creek, which is not a bad place to be.”

Wade said buyers are undeterred by climbing prices because they are buying with assets that have appreciated just as much.

These are not necessarily new trends in Colorado’s resort real estate market. For years, buyers have flocked, spending big on homes in the mountains, citing lifestyle changes, access to the outdoors and a shift from urban or suburban settings.

“The pandemic has just accelerated things that have already been happening for years,” Wade said. “Being here makes sense to more people now, for the same reasons everyone has always wanted to be here.”

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