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More Urban Dwellers Are Moving To Maine, And Properties Are Selling Fast

Fred Bever
Maine Public

The pandemic has taken a bite out of Maine's seasonal rental and hotel markets, but it is not hurting real estate prices at all. There is growing anecdotal evidence that, as happened after the 9/11 terror attacks, urban dwellers from out of state are snapping up properties in Maine. That is not yet showing up in the latest data, but prices are on the rise, and industry experts expect that that will continue as more people decide to move to Maine.

Jac Niarhos and Jeff Lehereux live in Boston's Back Bay, where she works for a financial services software firm, and he is a nurse at Mass General Hospital, where he has been working in a COVID-19 intensive care unit.

The young couple was married last year — she had her bachelorette party in Portland — and they had been musing about an eventual move to Maine. The pandemic moved that schedule up in a hurry.

"We were really confined to a smaller space we were renting, everything was just a little bit tighter, stressful, everything like that," Niarhos says. "And Maine just gives us a lot more wholesome vibes. We can see the nature all around us, the water all around us, in front of us and next to us, and those are things we wanted for the future, and we decided 'why can't the future be today.'"

And the future appears to have arrived. Wednesday they closed on a two-bedroom apartment with rooftop access on Portland's peninsula. They first saw it last month, thanks to a virtual tour via Zoom by a local agent.

"That was on a Friday," Niarhos says. "I went to see it in person with our families on a Saturday, we made an offer that Saturday afternoon, and we accepted that offer on Sunday,” says Niarhos. “So it was a very, very fast weekend for us." 

Their agent, Jes Wallimann, says the entire market is heating up.

"Things are moving very quickly. Sometimes things are going under contract in  —  less than five days is an average we're seeing now, I think. "

The Maine Association of Realtorsjust released statistics for the quarter that ended in June. They show that median sale prices in Maine rose by more than 6 percent over the same period last year to nearly 250,000. But the number of sales actually fell by 13 percent to just over 4,000 properties.

Association President Tom Cole says that the pace should pick up as the industry further adjusts to the social distancing needs of the day. And he says that over the last quarter, the proportion of buyers from zip codes will change as still-pending sales to out-of-staters start showing up in the data.

"I see it's a real thing. How much it is, honestly, I couldn't tell you. I don't think it's going to be a huge jump, and certainly if there is a jump, it's going to be over a period of time."

The trends seem to be most acute in southern Maine, where, even before the pandemic, the real estate scene was competitive, to say the least.

"Buying a home is almost like a full-contact sport here in Maine, depending on where you're looking, to secure these homes," says Dava Davin, a principal broker at the Portside Real Estate Group.

Davin says that values are being driven not just by urbanites seeking refuge in Maine — but says there is a severe supply shortage too. That is in part because the pandemic has sellers spooked as well, and they are sitting tight.

"People are really looking at their home and how they are spending time in it, and looking to improve it if they can and staying put and not having to go through having strangers walk through their house with that potential risk that that brings."

Plus, the risk that once someone sells a home, they simply will not be able to secure a new one. Davin says in the Portland area this summer, the number of new properties coming on to the market has dropped by 25 percent compared to last year. She and others report that renovation contractors are doing a brisk business with a focus on outdoor amenities that make social distancing easier. There is now a one-year waitlist to get a swimming pool dug in southern Maine, she says.

And that extra bedroom that acts as a storage closet? If you're selling, you might want to put a desk in it: "Some people from out-of-state are saying 'we need two offices. We are both working from home, both partners, and we need a space that can accommodate that'. So the two-office space trend is becoming a new one that we haven't really seen before."

Elsewhere in Maine, the trends can vary. Carol Schaefer, an agent with the Davis Agency on Mount Desert Island, recently surveyed sales of homes in Hancock and Waldo counties priced between a half million and a million dollars. Last year by this time, Schaefer says, there were 40 such sales.This year that did tick up, modestly, to 47. And prices also rose only modestly in that category.

But what has really changed, she says, is not the price, it's the pace.

"The one thing that has changed dramatically is the days on market. A year ago it was taking 375 days to sell those properties. Right now it's taking 200 days to sell those properties. So that's a huge change for us."

Back at their new home in Portland's west end, Jac Niarhos and Jeff Lhereux say they are relieved that the hunt is over. And they say they are very happy with the price — $382,500.

"Especially compared to Boston. We could actually spend our money and not get a shoe box. Which was fantastic."

They plan to move to Maine in August. She will be telecommuting to her old job in Boston, and he found a job within walking distance of the Portland condo at Maine Medical Center.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.