The Zoom town boom

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 29th of October, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: a rush on real estate.

Many businesses have struggled to stay afloat or have already shut down for good this year. One exception has been the housing industry. It’s booming. Sales of existing homes in this country have risen for four months in a row. So have median home prices. 

Analysts say low mortgage rates are part of the reason. But it’s also because many of us have realized that we may be stuck at home for a while, so we might as well like what we see.

REICHARD: People living in former Covid hotspots like Manhattan and San Francisco are fleeing that urban lifestyle. Some move to vacation towns with majestic views—places where it’s easy to social distance. That’s earned those towns the nickname “Zoom towns,” meaning executives working remotely are snatching up the real estate. 

WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney visited a Zoom town recently. She brings us a snapshot of some of the highs and lows of being at the center of a real estate boom.

KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: This time of year in Crested Butte, Colorado, you can see the last of the aspen leaves glittering like confetti in the wind and hear their percussive rustling.

AUDIO: [Sound of aspens]

The natural beauty is part of what made the Pugh family fall in love with the area. They moved here full time from Denver this spring.

AUDIO: [Knocking, door opens, greeting)

Brian and Allie Pugh say there’s a lot to love about living in southwestern Colorado. From the natural beauty…

PUGH: We’re on the flank of Mount Crested Butte. So it drops off below the house, down to the East river. And then we’re very fortunate ‘cause the home backs right up to the national forest…

To the activities…

PUGH: We were pretty active both summer and winter. We ski, downhill ski. We cross country ski. We snowshoe in the winter time, and in the summer we’re hiking and biking and fishing.

To the friendly residents.

PUGH: We can go up and down the street, name every single person, name their kids. We’ve had dinner with them. We’ve had barbecues with them. We’ve gone hiking with them, boating with them, you name it.

The Pughs had been planning to get out of the city long before “COVID-19” was a part of anyone’s vocabulary. But they said the pandemic sped up their timeline, since the coronavirus prompted their kids’ school to close, and Brian could work remotely.

They’re not alone. After being cooped up in their houses, people across the country began to dream of having a little more space. A pool. A pretty view while they’re stuck at home. Plus, the amenities of the city seemed less important, as libraries, museums, and restaurants closed.

That type of wanderlust has made Crested Butte realtor Jesse Ebner’s phone ring off the hook.

EBNER: [Phone rings] Hi, this is Jesse. Yes, I can give you information on that property…

Colorado towns have seen a particular surge in interest. Insurify Insights analyzes real estate trends. It put the Colorado communities of Breckenridge and Sterling in the top 10 cities with the greatest pandemic real estate booms. Ebner’s customers tell her that it took the world shutting down to shake them awake.

EBNER: And I think it’s made people really evaluate their lives and kind of expedite their goals and dreams. 

And she doesn’t see the real estate boom slowing down. If fewer properties sell, it will only be because there’s not enough inventory.

EBNER: We crashed really hard in 2007 and 2008 because of the mortgage crisis. We don’t have a mortgage crisis. If anything, the mortgages right now are driving our market because of the interest rates, which just fell again to 2.8, which is insane.

Ebner said the rental market is also hot. One house in Crested Butte South had 20 applicants almost as soon as it listed. That kind of interest is great for realtors, sellers, and landlords, but harder for longtime residents.

AUDIO: [Sound of store]

Scott Pfister owns three popular shops in the heart of Crested Butte: a clothing store, a toy store, and a gift shop. He’s seen the town change a lot in his 47 years as a resident. The biggest change lately, though? The cost of living.

PFISTER: The prices stay pretty high for the average person, but it’s knocking a lot of the locals out of town or down valley or even out of here. So, the service industry has really taken a hit, you know, we can’t find employees to work for us. It’s kind of sad.

The day I talked to Pfister, his toy store opened late because an employee couldn’t make it in from where she lived, pretty far out of town. He said young people who make up much of Crested Butte’s service industry have to work two or three jobs to afford the real estate in town, and many don’t want to do that.

Down the main road a few miles is Dave Hindes’ auto repair shop.

AUDIO: [Sound of auto repair shop]

Hindes travels in to work from 30 minutes away. He lives in the nearby town of Gunnison, which is more affordable than Crested Butte. He said the housing boom in Crested Butte has its upside.

HINDES: There is no curb season or off season seemingly anymore, which is, to me, good for business. 

But, he has noticed some negative effects. Like traffic, with the service industry commuting into Crested Butte from out of town.

HINDES: So you get in your train of cars that are commuting and you’re going just like we would do typically in July, August, and during ski season, when we would encounter that. The traffic, so to speak, hasn’t let up.

Even the hiking trails are packed. That’s something the Pugh family noticed.

PUGH: This summer we saw things we’d never seen before. There were places where there were just a hundred cars where normally the most you’d ever seen as five or six. So it’s definitely put a lot of pressure on the community as well as the back country itself. 

It seems that just like the landscape of the Rockies themselves, with the real estate boom comes highs and lows.

MUSIC: [Take Me Home, Country Roads]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Katie Gaultney in Crested Butte, Colorado.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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