In these times, an Adirondack property is more appealing than ever

For months now, real-estate agents across the Adirondack Park have been deluged with home buyers from cities in central and western New York, from the New York City area, and from points farther south. The summer sales surge is expected to more than offset the spring’s forced business shutdown due to the pandemic, and turn what had been a hot 2019 housing market into a 2020 inferno. Everyone agrees that COVID-19 was the accelerant.

What’s selling?

“Everything,” says Dawn Timm, owner of Timm Associates Sotheby’s International Realty, whose region in­cludes Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake and Old Forge. “From multi-million-dollar houses to $10,000 lots, and everything in between. I think people want a place to escape to.”

The surge is rippling across the park, says Michael Coughlin, the association executive for the Clinton County Board of Realtors. “Realtors are so busy they don’t really have time to understand who their clients are.”

July sales figures for Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton and Warren counties showed pending sales spiked to 292 units, up 83.6 percent over July 2019, with prices on closed sales increasing 25 percent from the year before.

Nobody is sure yet how many of the new buyers are purchasing second homes or primary residences, or if any of the second-home purchasers are open to settling in the park permanently.

What the salespeople do know is there’s a land rush, and clients are ready to buy. Right now.

Last year, Coughlin says, properties were selling fairly quickly—drawing offers 30 to 45 days after listing. “Now, if you put it up Friday, by Monday you’ll have multiple offers.”

Buyers frequently pay in cash. What’s remarkable is the market is devoid of one reliable source of purchasers: Canadians, who’ve been barred from crossing the border since March.

Jodi Gunther, president of the Northern Adirondack Board of Realtors, says the bidding frenzy extends into the park’s priciest houses, which in normal times “tended to sit for a couple of years.”

No longer. Even before her employer, Berkshire Hathaway/Adirondack Premier Properties, reopened from the government-mandated shutdown in May, she says, “Our office sold four or five properties in excess of two million dollars, just on the basis of FaceTime videos and the virtual tours that our websites were posting.”

Camp Woodmere on Upper St. Regis Lake drew 14 bidders to an early August auction—including, according to the Albany Times-Union, two billionaires and “a famous and current actor”—and sold for $5.21 million to a private businessman who was not identified.

The pandemic and the hardships it imposed on urban areas, especially the New York City region, are spurring the spending spree. “We always see an influx of people who realize the quality of life up here is excellent, that the scenery and the open space is very desirable,” says Luisa Craige-Sherman, the association executive for the Southern Adirondack Realtors. “But I think the pandemic has really driven that home even more.”

Indeed, coronavirus has scared people with money and flexible jobs into seeking safer spaces to work and live. With low infection rates and minimal deaths from COVID-19 thus far, the Adirondacks fits the bill.

For many already living here, however, the hot housing market is creating fears of its own. Prices are rising fast, and younger renters who might have been able find homes for under $180,000 a couple of years ago no longer can. “So you’re seeing people who can’t move into that first home,” Coughlin says. “There’s no inventory.”

Brian Wells, Indian Lake’s town supervisor, agrees. He says post-COVID sales have combined with previous conversions of many properties to Airbnb rentals to squeeze out locals. “I feel bad for the young kids who come out of school and don’t want to move away but can’t afford to stay,” he says.

This has ripple effects, too. “Our fire department is struggling with numbers for young recruits,” Wells says, “because we don’t have the pool to draw from.”

The influx of new neighbors is also generating worries for already angst-ridden school district administrators, who are well aware of the market activity but unsure of its impacts on the education system.

As of early August, the Keene Central School District was expecting 163 students when school starts in the fall, a modest increase from the 159 enrollees last year. But those numbers fluctuate in an ordinary year, and this is no ordinary year. Superintendent Daniel Mayberry says he’s heard from a number of families who have moved into the school district to live with relatives in the wake of the pandemic. “A lot of them have to do with unknowns regarding jobs, some overseas, some in other states,” he says.

Indian Lake Central Schools reported at least four additional students in late August, bringing enrollment to 114, but was bracing for more. “Those numbers are going to go up,” said District Clerk Dianna Wilder. The schools have been hearing from second-home owners and new buyers waiting for their sales to close, and expect “a lot of last-minute” enrollment. 

Diane Fox, the Saranac Lake district’s superintendent, says she’s seen no increase in registrations yet. But a wild card is the number of people already using second homes as primary residences during the pandemic. “Our seasonal homes have been occupied much earlier this year,” she says. Some of them have children who may continue to do distance learning through their downstate districts for now, but that could change later in the school year.

Most Adirondack districts have plenty of room for new students. Lake Placid superintendent Roger Catania says his district peaked around 15 years ago at about 950 kindergarten-through-12th-grade students. In 2019, that number had shrunk to 600, including pre-K. “In a normal year,” he says, “we could easily grow by 50 percent.”

But again, these are not normal times. Ask Long Lake school superintendent Noelle Short. Last fall, the cafeteria had a “surge capacity” of up to 50 additional students. “Now it’s 10,” Short says, because of social-distancing requirements.

That’s just one example of how her tiny district and its 65 students could be affected by even a small enrollment bump. One new family with three children, for example, could require redesigning an entire bus route, because of the time pressures associated with cleaning the vehicles between runs.

The bright side, if there is one, is that educators across the region are now accustomed to making changes on the fly. “We’ve learned a lot since March,” Short says.

So far, none of the district officials Adirondack Life interviewed predicts an immediate, massive spike in students, for which they’re thankful. “It’s not a good year for a surge,” Catania says.

On the other hand, they all welcome the prospect of growth in the wake of a catastrophe. It’s happened before. “The region kind of saw it after 9-11,” Mayberry says. “We had families who weighed their options and their risks for where they live and what they do, and decided to settle here.”

The hope is the newcomers will start to see the region as more than just a verdant panic room. In contrast to places like New York City and Westchester County, Catania says, his schools offer small class sizes and low-stress extracurricular opportunities in music and sports.

Catania and Stephanie Colby, a real-estate agent in Lake Placid, were part of an informal group that met last year to discuss ways to market those advantages. “We talked about why more people don’t choose to live and work here,” Colby says. “The answer has always been because it’s so remote, and there aren’t the same job opportunities.  Now the world has changed, and working remotely is totally acceptable.”

Not every community is as well-positioned as the Tri-Lakes region. In Indian Lake, Wells says limited broadband and cell service, and the prospect of driving an hour or more to a major grocery store or hospital, remain deterrents to prospective year-round residents.

Kate Fish, the executive director of the nonprofit Adirondack North Country Association, worries about the potential “Aspenization” of real estate across the region, where the wealthy part-timers are disconnected from the rest of the hollowed-out community. She’s been predicting an exodus of urban dwellers  to the Adirondacks for years, though she thought climate change, and not a pandemic, would be the catalyst. “For a lot of reasons, there’s a reckoning for urban environments,” she says.

The key now, Fish says, is to encourage the recent buyers to engage with their new surroundings beyond merely enjoying the fresh air—serving on school boards, lending their talents to community groups and shopping locally rather than ordering everything from Amazon.

On the latter front, she’s seen signs of hope. Local farmers’ markets have thrived since the COVID crisis, as have many merchants, even with the cancellation of keystone events such as the Ironman triathlon. “In Lake Placid, Main Street is having its best summer in years,” she says.

While Lake Placid is unique, every part of the park is getting a longer look as a long-term home. And it happened without a single advertisement to get people to move to the park. “Indirectly, our serenity and the outdoors and all the things that make it great to live here have been promoted,” Gunther says. “COVID did a great marketing plan for the Adirondacks.” 

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