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Real estate surge in the Adirondacks echoes post-9/11

Local real estate brokers weren’t sure what the market would look like when the economy opened up again — but those who have been in the business for decades suspected that the Adirondack housing market would rebound quickly.

There was precedent for that theory: After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Adirondacks — like many rural areas, such as the Catskills — saw a rush of homebuyers from New York City seeking solace in a rural area.

“These things are cyclical,” said Bruce Misarski, executive director of the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County. “After 9/11, it seems like we were planning for the worst, with the way the economy was racing forward. With the flip of a switch, 2008 happened. Financing completely dried up, and things took a four- to five-year slowdown. It seems like now, we’re ramping up like that again.”

But this rush of homebuyers amid the coronavirus pandemic is different for a number of reasons. Densely populated metropolitan areas, such as New York City, saw some of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 — in March, New York City became the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. Though the city is now in Phase 4 reopening, as of August, less than 10% of the city’s office workers had returned to work in person, and only about 25% of major employers say they plan to bring back their employees by December, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Working remotely, from anywhere, has become much more common.

“It’s almost like a light went on in people’s heads,” said Nicholas Politi, co-owner of the Lake Placid-based real estate agency Merrill L. Thomas. “They realized there’s an opportunity to maybe change their lifestyle. It’s bringing a lot of diversity here, and that’s great for our area. We need more diversity in our area. We need more young families.”

The Tri-Lakes region has been a popular tourist destination for generations. Politi said this part of the Adirondacks has a lot to offer potential buyers.

“You don’t have to get on a plane, it’s easy to get to, and it’s a place that has fresh air and fresh water, and you can easily distance from one another,” he said.

Politi said there has been a lot of interest from people in the greater New York City area looking to move here. But despite some peoples’ assumption that those looking to buy a home are primarily wealthy second homeowners and vacationers, Colleen Holmes, owner of Engel & Volkers Lake Placid Real Estate, said her agency has seen a mix of buyers from different backgrounds.

Politi said he has seen locals benefitting from the demand for Adirondack properties, too.

“I’ve seen a lot of families moving up, being able to purchase the home with another bedroom they were hoping for,” he said. “The values have helped them with the opportunity to purchase locally, too.”

Lake Placid luxury

Though the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into the U.S. economy, luxury properties — such as the multi-million-dollar waterfront homes in Lake Placid — are selling faster than usual.

Politi said the value of waterfront properties in Lake Placid has slowly ticked down over the years as buyer interest has wavered. He’s seen some properties sell below assessed value. But this year is different — with the number of waterfront homes on the market declining, he expects the values to rise.

Holmes said her agency has sold more waterfront properties this year than in years past.

“We’re seeing almost everything under $5 million on the lake bought up,” she said.

Ten years ago, Holmes remembers saying that everything on Lake Placid is at least $2 million and up.

“The supply of $3 million and under is very interesting to begin with,” she said. “There hasn’t been a huge uptick in price from a few years ago.”

Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Keene and Wilmington

The interest in Adirondack homes extends far beyond Lake Placid.

“The Saranac Lake market is extremely robust,” Politi said. “I’ve heard of multiple multiple-offers on properties. I think the values have risen significantly.”

There are far more properties for sale in Saranac Lake than any other area in the Tri-Lakes, according to data from realtor.com.

The number of homes for sale in the range of $200,000 to $400,000 — 37 as of Sunday, according to realtor.com — is far more than any other Tri-Lakes community. Including homes above and below that price range, there are at least 83 single- and multi-family homes on the market in Saranac Lake. Of those, just 20 are below $200,000 — and nine of those had sales pending.

In May 2002, there were just 32 homes for sale in Saranac Lake, according to an Adirondack Daily Enterprise article at the time. The average home sale price that year, at least up until May, was $78,167.

“In Wilmington, the town has an extreme lack of supply,” Politi said.

In the $200,000 to $400,000 range, “there might be a handful” of properties left on the market, according to Politi.

There were six houses in the $200,000 to $400,000 price range listed for sale in Wilmington as of Friday, Sept. 11, not including townhomes and vacant lots, according to realtor.com. Of those, four had sales pending.

Tupper Lake continues to have the most affordable real estate in the Tri-Lakes region. There at least 54 single- and multi-family homes for sale in Tupper Lake, according to realtor.com.

The bulk of those properties, 34 are listed at below $200,000.

In May 2002, most homes in Tupper Lake were priced below $80,000, according to an Enterprise article at the time. There was just one home for sale in the $90,000 to $145,0000 range.

The town of Keene — which had a population of roughly 1,072 people as of the last census — has both a lack of homes for sale and higher home values than any neighboring location, with the exception of Lake Placid.

As of Sunday, Sept. 13, Keene and its three hamlets of St. Huberts, Keene and Keene Valley collectively had 14 single- and multi-family homes on the market, according to realtor.com. Of those, just one property was listed below $200,000.

Who is selling?

Realtors say people are selling their homes for a couple of reasons.

Jim LaValley, owner of LaValley Real Estate in Tupper Lake, said most primary homeowners are not looking to leave the area when they sell; they are looking to “move up” to a larger space and see now as a good time to get a good price on their home.

He said long-term residents are tending to sell to relocate closer to family. Many sellers are retirees moving to be near their grandkids, wanting to be closer after the virus has kept them apart.

LaValley said in Lake Placid, some second homeowners have decided to sell their property after the North Elba Town Council and Lake Placid Village Board of Trustees adopted a set of new short-term vacation rental regulations in March. He’s seen at least five properties that had high rental numbers come onto the market.

The municipalities’ joint vacation rental law caps the number of days non-owner-occupied rentals in certain areas can be rented each year. A group of vacation rental owners filed a lawsuit against the municipalities in June, alleging that the law is unconstitutional; violates their civil, First Amendment and property rights; violates due process; and “substantially burdens” them by capping the number of days their units can be rented, according to court documents. That lawsuit, which seeks to void the law, is ongoing.

Northern Adirondack Board of Realtors President Jodi Gunther, of Saranac Lake, said some are taking the opportunity — because it is a seller’s market right now — to move away for tax reasons. She said this is mostly people moving to other states where taxes are lower, and where they have vacationed in the past.

She was not really sure how much politics plays into these choices, but she guessed that it influences some people’s decisions.