Vermont's High-end Real Estate Portfolio Grows

Posted by — January 2, 2006

Vermont's High-end Real Estate Portfolio GrowsBy Molly Walsh, Free Press Staff Writer

STOWE -- As sure as the snow falls in this ski town, real estate prices seem to go up. And up. And up.

Stowe is home to more houses at or above the million-dollar mark than any other town in Vermont. It has 190 residential properties assessed by the town at $1 million or more, followed by runner-up Ludlow at the other end of the state, which has 94. Like Stowe, Ludlow is home to a ski resort that appears to attract luxury home buyers like Christmas shoppers to early morning sales.

The recipe is fairly simple, said Frank Heald, municipal manager of Ludlow.

"If you have a successful ski resort, you have fantastic real estate."

The luxury real estate market is thriving in Vermont, according to an analysis of municipal grand lists throughout the state. The number of Vermont residential properties assessed at or above $1 million jumped from 597 to 1,005 from 2004 to 2005. Most of the million-dollar babies are tucked into chic rural towns with ample mountain views, scenic pastureland and access to ski trails and golf courses, but not all the price spikes are happening in Vermont's vacation belt.

Chittenden County, the state's economic engine and most populous region, has a growing number of hot properties. Shelburne claims 71 million-dollar domiciles. Three other Chittenden County towns make the top-20 list for Vermont towns with high-end residential properties: Burlington, Charlotte and Colchester.

Many of these homes are perched on lakefront lots, be they in the quiet exurbia of Charlotte or the citified shoreline of Burlington. Some of the homes are lavish new construction surrounded by horse paddocks and hills; some are old, turreted mansions within walking distance of Burlington's Church Street. They have soaring value in common.

"In general it is just the real-estate market of the last four or five years. There's been an exuberant real-estate market of late, so you've had tremendous price appreciation," said Bill Johnson, director of property valuation and review at the Vermont Department of Taxes.

Low interest rates, a relatively tight housing supply and strong demand from out-of-state buyers for vacation properties and primary residences have helped push annual property appreciation to about 10 percent across Vermont. With the rates slowly climbing, Johnson and others are predicting that the price acceleration will slow. He's not, however, predicting the bubble will burst anytime soon in Vermont, and in places like Stowe, it seems to be getting bigger and bigger.

The property that crowns the grand list in Stowe is a white marble mansion with a spectacular veranda framing mountain views. The home and 15 acres are assessed at $6.15 million, the highest assessment for a single-family home in Stowe. Built in 2001 by retired Kellogg Co. Chairman Arnold Langbo and his wife, Martha, the house in the town's exclusive Robinson Springs neighborhood carries a fat property tax bill: about $92,000 this year.

Taxes are something of a sore subject in Stowe and Ludlow, where many people say Vermont's education funding law, Act 68, is raising taxes and siphoning off money that used to stay in town.

"You can go to other states and pay a lot less in taxes," said Thomas Vickery, town appraiser in Stowe. Vermont's "in right now" and that's attracting home buyers, but the state's tax structure needs repair, he said. "Act 68 really is a hefty bite on property taxes and it gets worse every year."

Act 68 is a revision to the state's education funding system created by Act 60 in 1997.

Down in Ludlow, Heald also has a beef with Act 68. Despite all the property wealth in town, it's difficult to find money for basics like taking care of the roads, he said.

"There is no gold in the streets," Heald said. "I have to look hard to find the money to paint the yellow lines."

Stowe and Ludlow reappraised property this year, meaning the values on their grand list are current. Some towns in Vermont have assessments dating back as many as 10 years -- South Burlington, for instance, is in the middle of reappraisal. If those communities' assessments were more current and updated to reflect the most recent home sales, the list of million-dollar residential properties in Vermont would likely be even longer.

Stowe's hot real estate market is getting hotter due to brisk sales of condos, slopeside cabins and housing lots at Stowe Mountain Resort's long-planned Spruce Peak. Lots are selling in the neighborhood of $700,000, and some of the condos and cabins are topping the million-dollar mark.

Even seasoned real estate people are surprised by these numbers. Leslie Gauff, broker/owner of Carlson Real Estate on Main Street in Stowe, has lived in the town for almost 26 years. She didn't expect the prices on the Spruce Peak units to be so high.

"They are beautiful, but it was not the norm where you'd have people plunking down $3 million for a three-bedroom condo," she said.

The downside to the million-dollar housing boom is the worry that it will be even harder for middle-income people to live in Stowe, Gauff said.

"I would say for most people living here there's a general ambivalence about how this is all going to play out," Gauff said. "It's definitely going to mean more people, more traffic, a bit more glitz." For some, that's not necessarily what they think Stowe should be, Gauff said.'Aura of distinction'

Selling high-end real estate is not a matter of simply holding an open house and running a postage-stamp-size photo in an ad. Some houses have their own glossy brochures with aerial photos. Prospective buyers are typically vetted to ensure they have the necessary bucks.

Many of the top-end properties in and around Stowe don't just have six bathrooms, mahogany mantels and housekeeper suites -- they have names. Names like Pastiche (offered at $2.75 million); Lilac Hill Estate ($1.3 million) and Hidden Valley ($1.25 million.) Sometimes these names go way back -- and sometimes they are created in real estate company conference rooms shortly before a property goes on the market.

"That's a device to create an aura of distinction around the property," said Rick Carrick, a broker at Pall Spera Company Realtors in Stowe. "We like to think it's meaningful."

Carrick has sold lots of high-end real estate but he does it Stowe-style. He drives a pickup and takes pride in the sense of community in Stowe, something that attracts buyers, he said.

Carrick also talks about how the town has changed. He moved to Stowe in 1970. These days visitors come in every season. Back then Stowe was dead in the spring and summer.

"When I started coming here, half the motels on the Mountain Road didn't even mow their lawns in the summertime," Carrick said. "They weren't even open."

Although Stowe undoubtedly attracts high-fliers, some of them don't mind a wrinkle in the wallpaper if it makes the experience feel more real. One of Carrick's listings is a new arts and crafts style home in the North Hill section of Stowe.

The landmark for the turn-off leading to the house is an old barn that's caving in. That's not likely to hurt the market for the $1.5 million home that blends upscale with funky. It's full of beautiful wood, granite and marble, but it also has salvaged antique pocket doors, leaded glass cabinetry and an old stove door opening onto a laundry chute.

The home's builder, Brendan O'Reilly of Gristmill Builders, has built about 10 homes in a similar price range and has had no trouble selling them. He's not worried about the market now.

"It's still strong. It seems to be still strong."

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