‘COVID Refugees’ Not an Impact Issue in the Area

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Since the first days of this pandemic, people have wondered about the wider impacts that COVID-19 might have on the area, especially as residents comment on the number of cars with out-of-state license plates on village streets.

Have all these out-of-state license plates translated into property sales? According to state data, the answer seems to be ‘no.’ Just the first three quarters of 2020 property transfer data are available, so we compared property transfers from the first three quarters of 2017, 2018, and 2019 with 2020’s numbers. In analyzing the data, we eliminated family-to-family sales, foreclosures, tax sales, zero-dollar transactions, and multi-family home sales.

While data do show a surge of real estate transactions, that trend began in 2019, well before the pandemic, with a 45% jump in sales across our towns from 2018 to 2019. 2020 saw another 14% increase in sales over 2019, despite a period where homes could not legally be shown to prospective buyers. 2020 beat every previous year’s sales for January through March, doubling the sales for the same period in 2019. But the strongest sales quarter for real estate in every year is the third quarter; 2020’s third quarter did not match 2019 for the number of properties sold.

Likewise, there has been no run on houses by out-of-state buyers. In the past three years, half or more of all property sales in our towns were made by other residents, with a small number of sales to buyers in towns next door such as St. Johnsbury, Morrisville, or Barre/Montpelier. Sales to buyers from the rest of Vermont make up a smaller share of the pie than local and adjacent towns’ sales, followed by an even smaller share going to out-of-state buyers.

In towns such as Greensboro, which have large numbers of second homes, sales to out-of-state buyers have been dropping every year since 2017, dropping from half of sales in 2017 to less than a third of sales in 2020. In 2020, 29% of buyers in Greensboro were from another local town, with the percentage of buyers from adjacent towns and other parts of the state increasing.

Hardwick saw a large spike in the percentage of sales to out-of-state buyers, but the percentage was still just 15% of the total and the total number of property transactions was roughly the same as 2019.    Most people buying a property in Hardwick were from Gazette readership towns, followed by the rest of Vermont.

Wolcott had 50% more sales in 2020 than in 2019. Of those sales, the number of out-of-state buyers was 8%, with the majority of sales going to local buyers followed by those from the rest of the state.

Across all Gazette readership towns, out-of-state buyers make up just a small percentage of sales, as has been the case in previous years. This year, the total number of sales across all towns is on pace with 2019.

What has changed dramatically according to the data is how much people are paying for their properties, with double-digit percentage selling price increases in most towns since 2017. We measured “average” transactions, excluding zero-dollar transactions that the state does not. Buying a property in Hardwick for 2020’s buyers was 26% more expensive (at an average of $138,000) than in 2017; buying a home in Wolcott was 45% more expensive, at an average of $192,000. Greensboro saw a 60% jump in the listed price of properties sold ($516,143), with a 20% increase in selling price ($319,323).

Despite anecdotal stories of homes selling for double their list prices, the 2020 records show that across our towns only four properties sold for over 150% of the listed price in 2020. Comparatively, in 2019 six sold for that percentage or more, compared to two in 2018 and four in 2017.

Based on enrollment numbers from the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU), if out-of-staters are coming here in large numbers and renting, they don’t have children or don’t enroll them locally.

Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Adam Rosenberg provided numbers, none of that showed a significant increase in students enrolled. Hazen Union and Wolcott Elementary both show a drop in enrollment, with only Hardwick Elementary, Lakeview Union, and Woodbury showing small increases. Home-schooled students do not count toward official enrollment, and Craftsbury Academy’s number of home-schoolers more than doubled to 34 this year. Hazen Union’s almost doubled, to 39, while Hardwick Elementary’s remained the same.

Two other areas where out-of-state visitors might show up in state data is retail sales and sales for meals, both of which are reported by the state with a 180-day delay. None of our towns have enough volume in lodging sales for the state to publish data.

Retail sales in just two towns were reported, Hardwick and Craftsbury, and the most recent data are from May. Hardwick saw a strong increase in retail of 8.7% for May 2020, which was more than double the 2018-2019 increase. Craftsbury, on the other hand, saw a 26.4% drop in retail sales for May from 2019’s numbers, putting it among the Vermont towns taking the worst retail sales hits. Restaurant sales of meals were far worse, with only Hardwick reporting receipts. In May, Hardwick’s restaurant sales were down by 46% from 2019, which followed a number too low for the state to report in April and a 36% drop in March.