GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - When Aaron Cannon and his family began looking to relocate last year, they had their eye out West.
The idea of moving to Wyoming was appealing for several reasons, but leaving the changing social and cultural tension in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, became the deciding factor for the move.
“I thought, ‘I can’t live with the crazies anymore, enough of this stuff,’” Cannon said.
Of all the places not named Raleigh, North Carolina, he settled on Gillette, Wyoming, thousands of miles from where he’d lived his whole life.
It helped that his brother, Stephen, had made the move with his own family from North Carolina to Gillette about a month before, the Gillette News Record reports.
The Cannons aren’t alone.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the local real estate industry has experienced an uptick in out-of-state buyers drawn to Wyoming for its wide open spaces, relatively low cost of living and, in many cases, social landscape different from other more politically and socially polarized parts of the country.
“We have seen an influx in buyers coming from multiple parts of the country, moving to Gillette and Campbell County for a multitude of reasons,” said Audrey Lubken, a loan officer for First National Bank of Gillette.
For Aaron, 43, it was a little bit of everything about Wyoming that drew his interest.
“We can work from anywhere, really anywhere in the world,” Aaron said. “We went state by state. We love Wyoming’s history, its politics, its people.”
With more than 20 years of catering experience, Aaron is opening Ranch and Roost, a burger and fried chicken joint serving up “seriously elevated grub” alongside Big Lost Meadery.
His brother, Stephen, also found plenty to like about Gillette.
Stephen and Tamara Cannon made the move with their two school-age kids after vetting other parts of the state. Aaron and his family did a similar Wyoming tour last summer, checking out towns and feeling out which one felt like home.
While Gillette may not be as lush and mountainous as Wyoming postcards often depict, it has a larger population than the small mountain towns, and it has good schools, community amenities and solid internet connection, which was important for Stephen and Tamara, who both work remotely.
But with all of the given reasons to move to Gillette, several out-of-state buyers and those in the local real estate industry said that one of the primary reasons seems to be people seeking to get away from the social and cultural climate that escalated this past year with the pandemic.
“We’re not looking for everybody to agree with us, we just want to be left alone,” Stephen said.
The market heats up
When the pandemic first began to upend day-to-day life throughout the United States last March, people in real estate, like most industries, did not know what to expect.
In the months leading up to March 2020, Realtor Pat Avery of Pat Avery Real Estate in Gillette said the market was doing well in Campbell County.
“Then the pandemic struck, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to sell many homes here,’” Avery said. “Then the opposite happened.”
With a nation hunkering down inside their homes in March, it was unclear if people would want to buy new ones during such an uncertain time.
“What happened in March was kind of as expected,” Avery said. “We had a decrease in the number of homes put under contract. And then, by April it seemed like people were coming out again.”
There were the initial logistical concerns of how to show a house in the age of social distancing. Hand sanitizer and gloves were implemented at first. He said sometimes all of the lights were turned on inside a house in advance to avoid unnecessary touching. Eventually, Avery said people became more comfortable with the idea of letting strangers inside to view their homes.
That was especially true as the number of homes on the local market began to shrink and their values increased.
Before the pandemic, there already had been somewhat of a decrease in the number of homes for sale in the Gillette area, Avery said.
In February 2017, there were 367 residential properties for sale in Gillette. Then in February 2018, there were 303 homes on the market, followed by 261 at the same time the next year.
By February 2020, just before the pandemic hit stateside, there were 179 residential listings, a low number but not unheard of given the winter months often being relatively slow for real estate in general.
Since then, the number of homes for sale has stayed down as low interest rates and out-of-state interest have helped fuel a seller’s market.
For example, in September 2019, there were 281 residential homes listed in Gillette, Avery said. As of March 15, there were 141 homes on the market, 111 of which were under contract, according to data from Re/Max.
The average list price increased to $251,757 from $234,710 a year ago, based on the prior six months average. Sale prices also rose significantly, increasing to $243,450 this year from $222,262 last.
Although the average days on market has stayed fairly consistent from this time last year, according to data from Re/Max, the length varies depending on the property’s price range.
“It’s certainly fewer days on the market than typical,” Avery said.
Laura Wilkinson, a Realtor with ERA Priority Real Estate and the Northeast Wyoming Real Estate Alliance Board president, said there are many reasons for the reduced inventory.
There are sellers looking to upgrade from their starter to forever homes, then there are retirees who want to downsize or relocate. That’s in addition to the out-of-staters seeking a different way of life in Wyoming.
But as is often the case, sellers also become buyers. So those looking to sell, and with houses leaving the market quickly, have less time and fewer options to buy their next homes.
For that dormant market of sellers, who would then be pushed to buy quickly, Wilkinson said the market is almost too hot to touch.
“I have some people who are ready to sell, whether they want to upsize, downsize or whatever, there’s just nothing in the market right now,” Wilkinson said. “They live in the type of home people are looking for, so when they go to list, it probably won’t sit long.”
Further stoking the flames are low interest rates, which came in response to the pandemic to entice borrowers and have held up through the past year.
“I’ve been in real estate 40 years now and I’ve never seen interest rates as low as they were,” Avery said. “And they’re still really low.”
The interest rates fell to about 2.5% at their lowest, but can still be gotten for around 3% for many conventional 30-year mortgages, said Audrey Lubken, loan officer at First National Bank of Gillette.
For a six-figure, 30-year investment, the low interest rates could “save” buyers thousands of dollars in the long-run or give them a longer leash when deciding how much they can afford to spend.
“Over the past year we’ve seen the lowest interest rates we’ve seen in a long time, which has increased the number of people in the market,” Lubken said.
The low interest rates give buyers more spending power and sellers leverage on their asking prices, with the sum total equating to houses sold more quickly and at higher prices.
For some out-of-state buyers, the real estate boom has allowed them to sell their homes well above what they paid, then spend that money in Wyoming, where their dollar stretches further.
But when transitioning from North Carolina’s real estate market to Wyoming’s, Aaron and his family entered a pricier market than back East.
“Where we came from, it was a seller’s market. When we bought here in December, it’s a seller’s market,” Aaron said. “We spent considerably more for the same house and property than we would have back in North Carolina.”
However, Matt McKinley, 35, said he recently sold his home outside of Portland, Oregon, for about twice what he paid for it seven years ago. Now he’s looking to northeast Wyoming to buy a new home outright, escape growing social issues and live in a state with better hunting.
In the meantime, he remains in Oregon waiting for the right home in Campbell County, preferably something more rural, he said. Although he has not lined up a job in Wyoming yet, as a welder, he said finding work shouldn’t be an issue.
The move has been a long time coming, but the past year accelerated the timeline, he said.
“From talking to my Realtor, she’s saying there are a lot less homes on the market now than normal because there are a lot more people like me moving there,” McKinley said.
Even before the pandemic began, Kim and Tony Ware started planning their move from Washington state. In doing so, Wyoming quickly became their target landing spot.
“We wanted to get away from the political climate there,” Kim said. “We’re more with the conservative politics here; the freedom to not have any neighbors looking at us, wide open skies, less people.”
But uprooting their lives in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t an overnight process.
First, they had to sell their house in Washington, which Kim said lasted all of one day on the market before getting more than they paid for it.
Then, there was work to consider. Tony had a job of 20 years in the oil and gas industry in Washington and found a job in Wyoming the first week they were in town.
Finally, the couple moved to their new Wyoming home on 26 acres of land in September.
“It was a work in progress,” Kim said. “It took us about a year.”
With his 40 acres of Campbell County land, Stephen Cannon said he and his family hope to start a small farm and gradually grow it over the years. He may even raise chickens to one day supply his brother’s restaurant down the street.
It took a lot for Stephen and his family to feel the need to move away from Raleigh, but now that they have, he said he is happy with where they landed, imperfections and all.
“Everything we came out here for I think we found, without realizing there’s still quite the political battle,” Stephen said.
But it’s a different battle from the front fought in their former home. The debates over fiscal policy, school funding and state budget cuts are quaint compared with the deep-seated societal and cultural strife in his former metropolitan area back East.
Although Wyoming, with its vast vistas, modest population and mostly unilateral political leanings may differ from some other swaths of the country, it is not as far removed from broader society as the nearly 2,000-mile drive inland may have first suggested for the Cannons.
Trying to predict how much longer the strong real estate market in Wyoming and the rest of the country will last may be a fool’s errand, but it also made the past year for many feel like a wise time to rush in.
“Before the chips fell, we wanted to be out where we needed to be,” Stephen said.
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