Maine's Housing Market Upended By New Residents Arriving During Pandemic
The number of people relocating to Maine ramped up sharply in 2020. Many were fleeing denser urban settings and lured by the prospects of working remotely from their new homes.
In doing so, the COVID-19 refugees of 2020 have upended the state's housing market — and possibly its long-running population trends as well.
There's not a lot of information about who, exactly, moved to Maine in 2020, or how long they plan to stay. But data compiled by the Maine Realtors' Association might be a good place to start. It shows that overall home, sales here grew by almost 10% last year, hitting a record high of nearly 20,000 properties.
And almost all the growth can be attributed to a boost in the number of buyers from other states, like California native Jake Stamp and his wife, Logan Fordham.
They left their house on the outskirts of Silicon Valley in November. They were bound for a 28-acre farmstead in the rolling hills of Warren, which has a swimmable pond down below, and a pair of resident eagles patrolling above. They found it after looking around for properties on the website Zillow.
“We actually bought it without seeing it,” Stamp says. "It's a farmhouse built in 1841, so it's been added on and kind of [become] a Franken-house over the decades.”
In their early 40s, the well-traveled couple had their eyes on Maine, where Fordham was originally from, for a while.
Then the pandemic nudged them to action: Stamp’s company offered a remote-work option, and their relatively isolated home in the foothills was getting offers from fellow Californians looking to get away from the city.
They could also smell the smoke from the state's spate of wildfires: “Cal-Fire came to our door and told us if there's an evacuation or serious incident around here you need to run, you need to go."
Between the fires and the sudden interest in their house, they packed up and went — to Maine, where their real-estate dollars could stretch a lot farther.
"Yeah without a question. We looked out of the country as well, and Maine was cheaper, what we could get here, than what we could get in Guatemala,” Fordham says.
Most years, out-of-state buyers make up about a quarter of home sales. Last year, they made up a third.
And new residents are putting pressure on the rental markets too. Massachusetts natives Dan Valente and his wife Sara — most recently of Lynchburg, Virginia — really wanted to own a place in Maine, but they settled for a Camden rental.
"Because we couldn't find any housing,” Valente says. “I had driven and I had flown up a number of times just to look at some opportunities, and they really didn't materialize into anything. It's really a competitive market."
Valente was dropping off furniture at a big storage building in Brunswick. These days, he says, even finding storage in Maine is a competition sport.
"I don't think our situation is unique,” he says. “A lot of people are moving up here and there's just not even anything to buy, and people are forced to put their belongings in storage. I mean these were like the last two storage units available."
But while house-hunting may be stressful, some see these potential growing pains as a sign that Maine’s population — long in a state of natural decline — may be on the rise.
"Every year there are more deaths than births in the state,” says State Economist Amanda Rector. “So we're completely reliant on migration to the state for population growth."
Rector says that over the last decade, Maine's aging population grew at an anemic pace, just above 1 percent. She says it's possible – but not proven yet – that 2020 will mark a turning point.
"And so we had this sort of little bit of a silver lining in terms of, perhaps this is an opportunity for Maine to start seeing some increased migration, that could help offset some of our longer-term demographic challenges," she says.
Anecdotal evidence of surging school enrollments in some districts could lend credence to the idea. The Secretary of State's office also recorded more than 80,000 new-to-Maine voter registrations in 2020.
But the hard data needed to draw firm conclusions about population growth and demographics aren't available now, Rector says, partly because pandemic-driven dislocations have made even official numbers difficult to gather and interpret.
The number of new-to-Maine residents registering to vote here in 2020 are in line with the number of people who transferred registrations from other states in the last presidential election year, 2016.
But they do indicate some trends in political affiliation, with newcomers breaking down very roughly into thirds, with the largest number unenrolled, followed by Democrats and then Republicans.
They also show that Democrats tended to settle in towns traditionally dominated by Democrats such as Cape Elizabeth or Camden, while Republicans gravitated toward red towns such as Berwick and Hermon.
Colby College political scientist Dan Shea says that's in line with recent national trends showing that Americans are increasingly grouping themselves geographically, based on partisan ideology. He cautions, though, that newcomers to Maine may be driven by tangentially-related lifestyle choices, such as coastal versus rural living.
And there were some interesting anomalies. Lisbon, for instance, with a population of about 9,000 that's been fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, saw a surge in real estate sales last year, with twice as many newcomers registering as Republicans when compared to newly-registered Democrats.
Rector warns that there is a potential downside to the recent dynamics: with out-of-state dollars sending housing costs to new highs, some Mainers may get priced out.
"The people who may be looking for a home who were renting or are sort of newly established households within the state are now competing with a much larger pool of people for those limited houses, so it has the potential to really drive up some of the unaffordability that was already a problem in some places,” she says.
Real estate agents say they see it happening. Rob Edgerly, a Scarborough agent who compiles an annual "hottest towns in Maine" list, says the squeeze is on not just for primary residences, but also for the vacation homes and camps that many Mainers desire.
"Are you going to be able to go up to camp or buy a camp? It's going to be tougher, because all those areas saw big spikes,” he says.
Edgerly is feeling a little pain himself: two years ago, he and his wife sold their Bethel ski-condo, thinking they could buy back in again once their kids get through college. But a recent ski weekend there told them: maybe not.
"There's really nothing to look at, and if it is, it's much higher than what it was two years ago when we sold. We have some remorse,” he says. “We're definitely kicking ourselves and thinking maybe we should have hung on to that place."
Edgerly says he's particularly concerned that lower-paid workers in Maine's hospitality economy will find it that much harder to get a leg up.
Back in Warren, Logan Fordham and Jake Stamp say they get it.
"Oh god, things have doubled in price since just four years ago,” says Fordham.
Her husband added, "I mean, I do understand the concerns that people here have, like all of a sudden things get out of reach, and then we show up."
Stamp vows, though, that they are not planning to flip their house.
His plan is to settle down and become a true New Englander: "I mean I'll always be from away, right? But as much as they'll let me, yeah."
For more stories in Deep Dive: Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.