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By Mike Rosso

Colorado has seen consistent population growth since its inception in 1876, whether is was fur trapping, gold and silver mining, or world-class skiing. The state has seen an estimated 14.5% increase in population in the past decade, affecting both cities and rural areas as well. Between 2017 and 2018 the population of Colorado grew from 5.61 million to 5.7 million, a 1.58% increase.

The reasons for the growth are varied. Many come to Colorado for its vast areas of public land and recreation opportunities. For others, there were economic reasons. In November 2012, Colorado legalized marijuana for adults over age 21 by passing Amendment 64, one of only a handful of states at the time to do so, and was considered the new “gold rush,” drawing newcomers who wanted to capitalize on the burgeoning industry as well as those who wanted to enjoy recreational and medicinal cannabis without fear of criminal retribution.

In Salida, a large concert held in 2015 featuring the popular band Mumford and Sons, drew at least 20,000 music fans, many from the Front Range, who were experiencing Salida for the first time and fell in love. Subsequent large festivals in Buena Vista drew even more newcomers. The increasing popularity of mountain biking and river running has also added to the number of fresh arrivals.

But who would have guessed that a worldwide pandemic could create the conditions for the recent influx of new arrivals to rural Colorado?

The restrictions imposed by COVID-19 have driven a new rush to small towns and cities from urban residents who are discovering—from having to work from home—they could work remotely and not have to deal with the traffic and congestion of city living. Those who have dreamt of living outside the cities are finding a new reality because of the internet and the ability to work from home. The current real estate boom on the Front Range is causing long-time residents to cash in on that hot market and relocate to the (for now) less costly rural areas.

“People are escaping the chaos in the cities … and getting more bang for their buck in Crestone,” said Kelly Weston of Brackendale Realty in Alamosa.

She says the town of Crestone is seeing an increase in a younger demographic, mostly due to the ability to work remotely.

Unfortunately, like most places in Central Colorado, the inventory cannot keep up with the demand.

“There used to be around 200 available lots in the Baca (subdivision) and that is down to 45,” she said. There have been cases where four offers have come in on a home within a few minutes of its listing. A glance at the real estate listings in the Crestone Eagle is eye-opening. Most homes have either been sold or the sale is pending and there were 34 new housing starts in the Baca Grande Subdivision in 2020, according to the Eagle.

“There is a huge housing shortage in the Valley,” according to Molly Curley, also of Brackendale, who specializes in Alamosa listings. “You cannot find a single lot in the city,” she said. Although the pandemic has impacted the number of newcomers, she believes a lot of folks are taking advantage of lower interest rates and are, “coming back to their roots, moving back to the Valley.” There is even some upward growth occurring in Monte Vista and Del Norte.

She predicts a “huge housing shortage in the Valley,” as supplies there cannot keep up with demand. Overall, Saguache County saw a 28.3% increase in sold listings for single family homes in 2020 over the previous year and Alamosa County saw a 21.6% increase, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors.

Demand is also an issue in Chaffee County. “There is completely a lack of inventory right now, even for this quiet time of year,” said Devon Jencks of Colorado Mountain Realty in Salida. “These crazy prices are being driven also by a trend that started before the pandemic: folks working remotely and realizing they can live anywhere so why not a beautiful mountain town?  But this has just gotten more frenetic since the COVID.”

She added, “I have lots of buyers who are priced out or, even if they can jump on or afford something, they are having to compete with five other buyers and someone else always has cash.”

Asked about who is buying these homes, she said, “I still have a mix of locals buying investment homes or first homes and people from the Front Range or out of state. But out of the 17 properties I sold in 2020 (mostly homes, but some land deals), 13 of those buyers or sellers were local.”

According to the Chaffee County Assessors Office, there were 712 residential sales in 2019 compared to 748 in 2020, which includes sales of already existing homes and sales of land purchased that, in 2021, is either a finished residence or are at least 10% complete on a residence.

Chaffee County has seen a 25.6% increase in sold listings for single family units in 2020 over 2019. Auto registrations, an indicator of population growth has gone from 27,374 in 2010, to 31,505 in 2020 and as of Feb. 10, 2021, that number is 33,640, according to the Chaffee County Clerks Office. The Median Closed Price of Chaffee County homes was $500,000 in December 2020, an increase of 33% year over the year and an increase of 9% month over month.

August DeLarue, with DeLarue Building Company in Salida, who has been building homes in the region for seven years said this: “There is a very high demand for construction services—especially after COVID. We feel very fortunate to be able to work!” He noted that they are currently building for approximately 25% locals and 75% newcomers and are two years out on new projects. He also noted an increase in building materials with lumber being the most significant at 100%. Other building material increases vary between 15%-50%.

Duff Lacy, mayor of Buena Vista sees an ever-evolving scenario: “Although any answer would be without definitive research numbers, our housing market is HOT. I have heard that it is now known that work from home is even easier, therefore putting more pressure on our housing inventories. I believe this will open more doors to how we accommodate with new housing development, such as, smaller square footage and smaller yards.”

With a median home price of $450,000, Buena Vista has seen a 30% increase over the previous year. Salida has a $545,000 median price.

Gary Martin of the Martin & Tope Real Estate Company in Westcliffe has not seen a dramatic increase in home sales due to COVID, but Custer County’s 750-square miles has seen slow but steady growth since the recession of 2008, with second-home owners remaining a factor in that growth. His office alone has seen in increase in sales with over 250 real estate transactions in 2020, and prices and appreciation have been on the rise.

Gunnison County saw 1,065 properties sold in 2019–319 vacant and 748 improved—for a total of 927 deeds. That number jumped to 1,315 properties sold in 2020–429 vacant and 886 improved—for a total of 1,263 deeds, according to the Gunnison County Assessor’s Office.

Although the real estate markets in the region have seen steady growth for years, the pandemic of 2020 has opened the flood gates of new arrivals in many Central Colorado communities, thanks to the internet, the views, and the lure of rural living, with no end in sight.