After a year of looking for a home to buy in Westbrook, Nicole Kirchner said she might be ready to throw in the towel.
Kirchner moved into an apartment in Maine a year ago and immediately started looking for a house to buy.
She’s an executive at Wynn Las Vegas and has the freedom to work from almost anywhere, but said she was drawn to Maine for its open spaces and hiking opportunities.
She wasn’t looking for anything exotic, just a three-bedroom house with a garage and maybe a fenced-in yard for her dog, and she loved Westbrook for its suburban vibe a short drive from Portland. Westbrook also offered easy access to the airport, which would be convenient for frequent business trips.
Its budgeted price – around $300,000 – put it in the middle of Maine buyers last year, but tight inventory has pushed home prices to new heights.
Kirchner said she’s only been close to a purchase a few times since she began her search.
“I’ve been bidding on one a week since last April,” she said. “They all sell out in three days.”
Kirchner said the frustration of the experience caused her to change her expectations and even stretch her budget a bit, but to no avail. With just 38 homes for sale in Westbrook last month, she said getting a deal would mean making adjustments.
“Certainly my standards have dropped,” she said. “I think I don’t even have any standards anymore.”
Over time, she removed things like a quiet street, a fireplace, a patio and a dining room from her wish list, said she was now ready to make repairs if needed.
His struggles to land a home illustrate the logic of the advice real estate agents give their clients in a market where inventory is tight and prices are rising: cast a wide net because some cities have extremely short listings of homes for sale.
“As a buyer, you need to broaden your radius of cities you’re considering,” said Michael Sosnowski of Maine Home Connection, a Portland residential real estate broker.
Sosnowski said the number of homes for sale is down in Maine, so buyers who focus on just one or two cities are going to face even greater challenges in a market that’s already favoring sellers.
Home prices in Portland and nearby towns have skyrocketed, Sosnowski said. “The cost is really huge.”
But go even further and the prices don’t drop as much as they used to.
Sosnowski reviewed listings and sale prices for 18 southern Maine towns and found that all but five had fewer homes on the market in March than last year, which was around the time brokers saw for the first time that the number of homes for sale began to contract significantly.
Of those five towns where listings hadn’t fallen year over year, three had about the same availability as a year ago, and Biddeford had 34 homes on the market, down from 33 in March. 2021..
Old Orchard Beach, which saw the largest increase in availability, had 29 homes available in March, up from 25 last March.
In some cities, there is barely a real estate market to measure.
In Yarmouth, just eight homes were on the market last month, down from 26 in March 2021. Low availability makes it easier to see what drove the median price up 60% over the same period – from $667,500 at $1,040,500 last month.
Prices rose in most Maine markets over the same period. The median price of a home in Maine rose 17% from last March to $301,000 from $257,000, according to Sosnowski’s figures. The median means that half of the houses sell for more and half sell for less.
From March to March, the number of listings in Cumberland County rose from 644 to 519, while the median price rose 17.3% from $383,500 to $450,000. In York County, the market contraction was somewhat less severe, with 509 homes on the market last month compared to 564 a year earlier. But while stocks fell nearly 10%, prices jumped nearly 19%, with the median rising from $350,000 to $415,000.
In a way, news from the tight housing market is playing a role in its tightening, said Crystal Tropeano, broker at RE/MAX Shoreline.
When she contacts clients for whom she has helped find homes in the past to suggest that now may be the time to sell, most don’t.
“It’s the fear of not knowing where they’ll go, that’s what I hear all the time,” she says. “I’ve contacted a lot of people I’ve sold houses to and it’s the same thing – ‘Where am I going?’ ”
It’s not an issue unique to Maine, Tropeano said. Across the country, housing markets are tight, with no construction boom to help keep up with demand.
Homebuilders, she said, are crippled by high prices for lumber and other building materials, as well as labor shortages and supply chain disruptions.
Rachel Kelly said she and her husband knew they had to take shortcuts and act fast in order to get the home they recently purchased in Brunswick. Before bidding on a three-bedroom house on two acres in a rural part of town, neither had seen the property in person.
The couple visited the home on FaceTime with their broker, Kelly said, but she didn’t set foot there until the day before the movers arrived with their furniture in March.
Her husband had been in the Navy, she said, so they’re used to “eerie moving scenarios”, but “it was a step up in the level of faith required”.
Kelly works remotely for a tech company and her husband, now retired from active duty, has a job at a financial company in Portland.
She had fond memories of Brunswick from the few years her family spent in the city when she was young and was eager to leave the busy suburban Virginia lifestyle behind in Washington, DC.
She and her husband were also drawn to Brunswick by the availability of a parochial kindergarten and nursery school for their children, she said.
“This is where we always wanted to go,” she said, but Maine’s supercharged real estate market still took them by surprise.
Derrick Buckspan, the owner of RE/MAX Shoreline, said the changes can be seen in how quickly buyers have to react when a home comes on the market, especially if they’re focusing on a particular city.
“Maybe 10 years ago they could see a bunch of places on the weekends and then discover more during the week,” he said, but now shoppers often have to be ready to see a property as soon as it is listed and to make an offer the same day.
“The speed at which homes are coming off the market is so fast,” he said.
Kelly said she and her husband quickly realized this.
“We were from the Washington, D.C. area, where the market is always hot,” she said, “but even compared to that, that market was just crap.”
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