Benefitting from the extraordinary economic expansion of the Nineties, mountain resort real estate is booming throughout the U.S.-even in locales that in recent years had suffered regional recessions or hadn't yet been discovered by buyers. Mountain prices in New England, long depressed, are coming around, and not only in the traditional condominium market. To emulate trends in the Rockies, many resort buyers throughout the Northeast are looking for land and big houses. The upper Midwest remains quite affordable compared to more glamorous ski regions, but is seeing steady appreciation. In many cases nationwide, the involvement of a major resort developer has generated optimism-and rising prices. Resort areas such as Squaw Valley, Calif., and Whitefish, Mont., are tapping into a newfound demand for high-end real estate.
Despite the rising market, there are deals. Where significant new construction is under way, older properties, particularly those in need of a remodel, are relatively affordable. Buying real estate remains an intensely personal and emotional decision. Although many buyers purchase with the hope of significant appreciation, there are no guarantees. The recent financial restructuring of American Skiing Company, which expanded rapidly during the mid-Nineties, and the lackluster snows and skier-counts earlier this season, serve as reminders that there are no sure bets in ski resorts.
Here are five rules of thumb to bear in mind when shopping for mountain property:
1 First, understand why you want to buy. Are you looking for an investment property, a weekend getaway, an eventual retirement home, a family gathering spot? How often would you like to use your place each year if it's a second home? You may find physical proximity is more important than any other consideration.
2 Do some legwork to understand the community you are buying into. This means visiting at least several times during several seasons. Talk to residents. Subscribe to the local newspaper. Your Shangri-La may seem quaint and charming, but the experience of living in a town can be very different from just visiting, especially if the community is torn by political battles or suffers six weeks of mud every spring.
3 If you plan to spend a good amount of time in, or retire to, your new home, consider the services that matter to you. Do you need to be near a hospital, a pediatrician, an auto mechanic? Do you require a DSL line for your computer? Can you live with the reality that the nearest Costco is 80 miles away and that "culture" is found at the corner video store?
4 Understand the hidden costs in buying property, such as real estate transfer taxes, and who pays them. If you're buying into a condominium, study the association fees and the books. Ensure there's a healthy capital reserve so you won't be hit by surprise assessments for a new roof or re-paved parking lot.
5 If you're purchasing anything other than new property, make sure you hire a seasoned building inspector. Radon, poor insulation, a badly ventilated roof or a substandard leachfield are just three examples of hidden problems that might cost you a great deal down the road.