Home sales surge in Idaho resort towns as buyers seek open spaces in COVID-19 pandemic
John Sowell, Idaho Statesman
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Harmon Kong planned to take his wife, Lea, to Europe this year to celebrate the couple’s 25th anniversary. He already had airline and hotel reservations for Italy when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and they were unable to travel overseas.
“Everything was shut down, so on sort of a whim we decided, ‘let’s go somewhere,’” Kong, the founder of Southern California wealth management company Apriem, said by phone. “I had heard Idaho is nice, but had never seen much of Idaho other than Sun Valley.”
The Kongs flew into Boise in September and drove to McCall. “We stayed at Shore Lodge and just couldn’t believe how pretty it was with Payette Lake,” Kong said. “We started to look around at the places there and some real estate.”
The couple found a three-bedroom, three-bath home they liked at Tamarack Resort, on the west side of Cascade Lake, southwest of Donnelly. Kong returned three times from Orange County to buy the home.
The Kongs are among a growing number of people buying second homes in Idaho resort towns. They’ve come from California, Oregon, Washington and other states looking for quiet spots where they can escape the rat race and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Buyers from Idaho and out of state are flocking to resorts such as Tamarack and the Whitetail Club in McCall, along with properties in the Teton Valley in eastern Idaho and in Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho.
“Had COVID-19 not happened, we would have gone to Italy for our vacation and back home, and that would have been the end of it,” he said. “The joke is if I told her when we got married that on our 25th anniversary I’d take her to Idaho, she probably would have said no.”
Scott Turlington, president of Tamarack Resort, said Tamarack is no different than many other resorts drawing more attention because of the pandemic, the civil unrest that occurred in many larger cities earlier this year and a desire to get away.
“It’s turning into a kind of refuge for people to relocate either semi-permanently or on a full-time basis,” Turlington said. “I wouldn’t say they’re fleeing the urban areas of cities, but I think they were concerned about the pandemic. Idaho offers a lot of unique opportunities, with space being one of them.”
TAMARACK REBOUNDS AFTER TURBULENT BEGINNING
The $1.5 billion Tamarack Resort opened in 2004 with hopes of becoming Idaho’s Aspen, Colorado, catering to the rich and famous. It was the nation’s first major destination ski resort built since the 1980s.
Development stopped four years later when the recession hit. Bill collectors became more common than celebrities and in 2008, the resort declared bankruptcy. Three years later, Jean-Pierre Boespflug, a technology executive who was Tamarack’s primary investor, disappeared.
In 2016, a group of homeowners bought the resort’s operations and brought Tamarack back to life. Instead of celebrities, the resort began looking to locals to buy homes. In recent years, it has begun attracting families like the Kongs, who plan to spend Christmas with their children at Tamarack.
Today, the debt is gone. At one time, there were $20 million in sewer and water bonds that “were always the dark cloud hanging over Tamarack,” Turlington said. They were bought by Tamarack Resort Holdings, which bought the resort in 2018. The company is owned by Imperium Blue, a partnership of investors and managers with decades of development and operations experience at premier resort properties across North America.
“We don’t have partners that we owe money to, we don’t have banks that we borrowed money from,” Turlington said. “This is all financed internally with their equity.”
Tamarack has about 400 homes. By late November, 74 homes and condominiums had sold in 2020. In all of 2019, 35 housing units sold.
“In years past, we saw 15, 20, 30 units sold,” Turlington said. “The increase speaks a lot to the pandemic but it also speaks to the fact there’s a resort emerging from the shadows again.”
WHITETAIL CLUB IN MCCALL IS BOOMING
Twenty-two miles north, in the hills overlooking Payette Lake in McCall, it’s much the same story at the Whitetail Club, another private community.
“People are looking for a little bit more isolation or that destination point that you can put your arms around without being in a big city,” Tom Garcia, Whitetail’s president and general manager, said by phone.
Whitetail, which encompasses 1,300 acres adjacent to the iconic, 71-year-old Shore Lodge, opened in 2005. It also includes an 18-hole, par-72 golf course designed by Roger Packard and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North.
In 2008, Joe Scott, chairman of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and grandson of Joe and Kathryn Albertson, bought Whitetail and Shore Lodge. Scott grew up spending his summers at the historic hotel while visiting his grandparents’ cabin in McCall.
Whitetail has 295 home lots and has sold about half of them. Lot sizes vary from half an acre to more than 5 acres and are listed between $319,000 and $1.4 million. Many buyers — who come from the Pacific Northwest, California, Arizona, Texas and as far away as Maine and Florida — are purchasing their second or third home.
“For years, the Boise market really drove the McCall and Whitetail market,” Buchanan said. “I think we’re still going to see that, but it’s more diverse, more spread out now.”
People from other areas are drawn to Valley County for the same reasons McCall, Donnelly and Cascade have long been popular with Idahoans.
“The scenery is gorgeous,” Garcia said. “The community is very close-knit. Everybody is out to help everybody.”
Whitetail and Tamarack, like many Idaho communities, are benefiting from the easy accessibility of high-speed Internet during the pandemic.
“It’s not just COVID alone, but as employers are finding you can still be successful working out of a remote location or out of a home, we’re getting more interest,” Garcia said.
“Most of our buyers are cash buyers,” Joe Buchanan, Whitetail’s vice president of real estate, said by phone. “Very few, less than 10%, are financing their purchases here.”
A report from Seattle real estate brokerage Redfin found that demand for second homes soared 100% nationwide in October from a year earlier. It was the fourth triple-digit increase in the previous five months. It outpaced the demand for primary homes by 50%, Redfin said.
For the past two years, homes prices in Idaho have risen at a steeper level than any other state. Idaho prices rose 14.4%, topping last year’s 11.6% increase. Boise led the list of cities for the past two years, with home prices increasing 16.4%.
The median price for homes sold in Ada County in November set a record: $425,000. High prices, coupled with low inventory, led to homes staying on the market for only 18 days before being sold.
In Canyon County, the median price was a record $325,000, the 10th straight month to see a record. Since February, the median price has risen $60,000.
EAST IDAHO, NORTH IDAHO HOME SALES RISE
Other areas in Idaho have also seen an increase in resort area home sales. Idaho’s Teton Valley, northwest of Jackson, Wyoming, and Coeur d’Alene in Northern Idaho have also experienced high sales.
“We’ve seen a major increase in land sales,” Tayson Rockefeller, owner of Teton Valley Realty in Driggs, said by phone. “We normally see maybe 200 land sales a year in the Teton Valley. We’ll probably hit 700 this year.”
As in the Boise area, few homes in the Teron Valley are available to buy, Rockefeller said.
“We’ve virtually sold all the inventory that’s out there,” he said. “Demand continues to be high, so prices have increased exponentially.”
A three-bedroom condominium for sale by Rockefeller’s company in Driggs is listed for $420,000. A three-bedroom house east of Driggs, near the Wyoming border, is listed for $380,000.
Rockefeller describes Driggs as “an up-and-coming ski town” that is being favorably compared to the early days of Sun Valley and Park City, Utah. Three ski resorts — Grand Targhee, Teton Pass and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort — are less than an hour away.
As a local who has sold real estate for a decade, Rockefeller finds the change bittersweet.
“We finally have been discovered, and it’ll change the dynamic of our valley,” he said “We all kind of joked about how we hoped this winter would be so formidable that might might make people rethink their desire to be here. But so far it’s proven to be relatively mild winter.”
Many newcomers are from California, but Rockefeller has seen people move from Colorado and New York.
“The Colorado locals are migrating north to find somewhere that’s less populated,” he said.
PEOPLE FLOCK TO COEUR D’ALENE
Coeur d’Alene is also seeing high demand and little inventory, Kim Cooper of Select Brokers said by phone.
“It’s a red-hot market,” Cooper said. “We have very few active listings, and whatever goes on the market doesn’t last very long if it’s priced properly. Meanwhile, prices continue to increase.”
Ten years ago, the trend was toward urban housing, he said.
“That has shifted to where people are escaping the cities and coming to places like Idaho, where there’s less population density and a reduction in the risk of exposure to COVID-19,” Cooper said. “More importantly, they’ve discovered they’re happier working from home.”
They don’t have to pay for day care, he said. They don’t have to commute to work, which for people living in large cities on the West Coast “can be miserable.”
Coeur d’Alene has attracted buyers from Seattle and other cities in Western Washington for a number of years, including this year.
“We’re seeing more people this year from Oregon,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois license plates, so I think the exodus from metropolitan areas is from across the country.”
Many factors have played a role in drawing people to Northern Idaho: the pandemic, seeking a place more in tune with their conservative politics and people bothered by the summer demonstrations and riots in some towns, Cooper said.
“People are scared and they want to get away from it,” Cooper said. “We’ve got lots of rural living in Idaho, and now with the freedom from their employers to maintain their jobs but not have to come into an office, that’s pretty liberating.”
BOISE FAMILY PICKS TAMARACK OVER MCCALL, SUN VALLEY
Back at Tamarack, Boise resident Renae Rainwater and her husband bought a two-bedroom condominium a couple of months ago.
“We were looking around at a lot of places in Idaho, specifically, the Sun Valley area and McCall fit into the top of the list,” Rainwater said. “And then I remembered Tamarack was being rebuilt, so we checked that out as well.”
The couple spent several months looking for a place and made an offer on a place in Sun Valley before changing their minds.
“We just found that, after spending more time here at Tamarack, it has way more to offer,” she said.
She liked the idea of being able to walk outside and get onto a ski lift a short distance away.
“And in the summertime, boating is literally right around the corner, and you can leave the garage with an ATV and go for miles and miles,” she said. “That was something that no other location we found could offer.”
Their Tamarack condo also provided a safe place to quarantine after Rainwater’s 11-year-old daughter contracted COVID-19 late last month. The girl stayed in one bedroom, and Rainwater and her 9-year-old daughter, who tested negative, stayed in the other bedroom.
“We did that for basically 10 days until she was cleared of all her symptoms,” Rainwater said.