Home » With few houses and high prices, buying a Maine home is only getting harder – Press Herald

With few houses and high prices, buying a Maine home is only getting harder – Press Herald

by Arifa Rana

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Some towns have only a few homes available. Some buyers bid and bid and get outbid every time.
Nicole Kirchner has been trying to buy a home in Greater Portland for over a year and has been repeatedly outbid by other buyers who offered far over asking prices. She’d rather be putting money into a mortgage payment than her one-bedroom apartment at The Linden in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
After searching for a year for a home to buy in Westbrook, Nicole Kirchner said she might be ready to throw in the towel.
Kirchner moved to an apartment in Maine a year ago and immediately began to look for a home to buy.
She’s a manager with Wynn Las Vegas and has the freedom to work from almost anywhere, but said she was attracted to Maine for its open spaces and hiking opportunities.
She wasn’t after anything exotic, just a three-bedroom house with a garage and maybe a fenced-in yard for her dog, and she liked Westbrook for its suburban feel just a short drive from Portland. Westbrook also offered easy access to the airport, which would be convenient for frequent work trips.
Her budgeted price – around $300,000 – put her right in the middle for homebuyers in Maine last year, but a tight inventory has driven home prices to new highs.
Kirchner said she has only been close to a purchase a few times since she started her search.
“I’ve bid on one a week since last April,” she said. “They all sell within three days.”
Kirchner said the frustration of the experience has led 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 closing a deal will mean making adjustments.
“Definitely, my standards have dropped,” she said. “I don’t think I even have standards anymore.”
Over time, she has pared things like a quiet street, a  fireplace, a deck and a dining room from her list of wants, said she’s now willing to take on some repairs if needed.
Her travails in landing a house illustrate the logic in the advice real estate agents have been giving their clients in a market with tight inventory and rising prices: Cast a wide net because some towns have extremely short lists of homes for sale.
“As a buyer, you have to expand your radius of towns you will consider,” said Michael Sosnowski of Maine Home Connection, a Portland residential real estate broker.
Sosnowski said the number of homes for sale is down across Maine,  so buyers who are focused on only one or two towns are going to face even greater challenges in a market that already favors sellers.
Home prices in Portland and nearby towns have soared, Sosnowski said. “The cost is really daunting.”
But get even farther away and the prices no longer drop as much as they used to.
Sosnowski looked at listings and sales prices for 18 southern Maine towns and found that all but five had fewer homes on the market this March than last, which was around when brokers first saw that the number of homes up for sale start to contract significantly.
Of those five towns where the number of listings had not shrunk year to year, three had about the same availability as a year ago, and Biddeford had 34 homes on the market, compared to 33 in March 2021.
Old Orchard Beach, which had the biggest increase in availability, had 29 homes available this March, compared to 25 last March.
In some towns, there’s barely a real estate market to measure.
In Yarmouth, just eight homes were on the market last month, compared to 26 in March 2021. The low availability makes it easier to see what has driven the median price up 60 percent over the same period – from  $667,500 to $1,040,500 last month.
Prices have risen in most Maine markets over the same period. The median price for a home in Maine rose 17 percent from last March to this March, from $257,000  to $301,000, Sosnowski’s figures show. Median means half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less.
From March to March, the number of listings in Cumberland County  fell from 644 to 519, while the median price increased 17.3 percent, from $383,500 to $450,000. In York County, the market contraction was a little less sharp, with 509 homes on the market last month compared with 564 a year earlier. But while inventory dropped by nearly 10 percent, prices jumped up by nearly 19 percent, with the median rising from $350,000 to $415,000.
In a way, news of the tight housing market plays a role in tightening it, said Crystal Tropeano, a broker with RE/MAX Shoreline.
When she contacts clients she helped find homes for in the past to suggest that now might be a good time to sell, most beg off.
“It’s the fear of not knowing where they will go, that’s what I keep hearing,” she said. “I’ve reached out to a lot of people that I’ve sold homes to and it’s the same thing – ‘Where will I go?’ ”
That’s not a question unique to Maine, Tropeano said. Across the country, housing markets are tight, without building booms to help meet demand.
Homebuilders, she said, are hamstrung by high prices for lumber and other building materials, as well as a labor shortage and supply chain disruptions.
Rachel Kelly outside of her home in Brunswick on Friday. Kelly and her husband recently bought the home and moved up to Maine from Washington, D.C. for his job. Kelly said the process took months and they didn’t see the house in person until they day before they moved in. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
Rachel Kelly said she and her husband knew they had to cut some corners and act quickly in order to get the home they recently purchased in Brunswick. Before they put in a bid for a three-bedroom house on two acres in a rural part of the town, neither had seen the property in person.
The couple toured the home on FaceTime with their broker, Kelly said, but she didn’t set foot in it until the night before the movers arrived with their furniture in March.
Her husband had been in the Navy, she said, so they are used to “strange moving scenarios,” but “this 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 with a financial firm in Portland.
She had fond memories of Brunswick from a couple of years her family spent in the town when she was young and was eager to move from the faster-paced lifestyle in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.
She and her husband were also drawn to Brunswick by the availability of parochial preschool and kindergarten for their children, she said.
“This is where we’ve always wanted to go,” she said, but the supercharged Maine 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 house goes on the market, especially if they are focused on one particular town.
“Maybe 10 years ago, they could see a bunch of places on a weekend and then check out more during the week,” he said, but now buyers often need to be prepared to see a property as soon as it is listed and make an offer the same day.
“The speed at which houses are going off the market is so fast,” he said.
Kelly said she and her husband quickly figured that out.
“We were coming from the Washington, D.C., area, where the market is always hot,” she said, “but even compared to that, this market was just cuckoo.”
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