This summer, seven empty lots on the face of Big Mountain in Whitefish were put up for sale — the smallest was just over a half an acre and listed at $1.2 million. The owners of the Northern Lights development weren’t accepting offers on the properties until Sept. 1, but once they did, offers came flooding in. By the end of October, six of the seven lots had been sold.
In years past, those lots might have waited much longer for buyers, but in 2020 the quick sales exemplify what Whitefish real estate agent Angie Friedner has been calling a “Montana land grab.” Since May, when Gov. Steve Bullock rolled back a pandemic-motivated 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state travelers, real estate prices in parts of Montana have skyrocketed, and properties that are priced well go quickly.
According to the Montana Regional MLS (which covers western Montana, including Flathead, Missoula, Lewis and Clark and surrounding counties), the average sales price for homes and property in the area has increased by more than $115,000 since June, to $455,472 in September. The median sales price in the region has jumped from $300,000 in June to $339,000 in just three months. In Flathead County, the jump is even more dramatic. In June, the median sales price for a home in Flathead County was $329,000. By the end of September, it had jumped to $417,500.
“Our biggest issue right now is we have really low inventory,” Friedner said. “If something has been on the market for 60 or 90 days, it’s probably overpriced.”
The real estate market is usually busier in the summer before slowing down in the fall. But Friedner said it’s not clear that it will slow down this fall. In September 2019, 233 closed sales were recorded in Flathead County. A year later that number has jumped to 374 closed sales in the same month.
“It doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” she said. “High prices and low inventory. That’s the market right now.”
Friedner said that as the number of homes on the market keep dropping, more people are turning to land to build on, including developments like Northern Lights on Big Mountain. Because there can be a lag between purchasing a property and beginning construction, it can be hard to gauge just how many people are starting from scratch this year, said Whitefish Planning and Building Director Dave Taylor. He added that he’s fielded multiple calls in recent months from out-of-state developers looking to build in Whitefish.
Much of the fuel in the real estate market appears to be coming from out-of-staters interested in moving to Montana due to the pandemic. Friedner said she’s been dealing with many clients from Texas, California, Washington and Minnesota. Earlier this year, real estate agents reported out-of-state buyers making offers on homes after having seen the properties only via a virtual FaceTime tour.
Data released last month by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis shows that a similar story is unfolding across the West in so-called Zoom towns — smaller-population scenic areas where residents can telecommute to jobs in distant cities. Among them are places like Missoula, where home sales have increased nearly 10% over last year.
Even in more remote areas, real estate is moving quickly this year. Tina Morkert, a broker in Thompson Falls, said there is little inventory available in Sanders County following a busier-than-normal summer. For years, no-stoplight towns like Thompson Falls (population 1,394 as of 2018) have remained essentially unchanged, Morkert said, even as Kalispell and Missoula have rapidly grown. But she said Thompson Falls felt busier than ever this summer.
“If this continues we’re going to need a stoplight,” she said.