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One way to make it a worthwhile investment

Column by Hal Walter

Real Estate – November 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S BEEN SAID that the golden time from mid-September to mid-October almost makes it worth all the hassles of living here the rest of the year.

And it’s true. There’s something idyllic about this time of year when the sky turns that certain hue of blue, the gambel oaks explode in various colors, and even the scrubby alpine currant bushes and mountain mahogany help paint the scene red, brown, yellow and green, the latter releasing fuzzy spiraled seeds into the soft breeze. Of course I’ll avoid the obvious cliches of the annual aspen show. J.R.R. Tolkien had it right in The Lord of The Rings in which the trees of Middle Earth stayed gold all winter, only to be replaced when the new green leaves pushed their way out in the spring. Sadly, few of us have the power or imagination to create our own worlds. Some have enough money to try.

Recently a neighbor who has listed his home and property for sale told me that after he sells the place he’ll come up here once a year to look at the scenery, but other than that he’s done with the area. Now this gent is elderly and I can understand how year-round life could be difficult for him. In fact, each year I note that the beauty of autumn underscores the splendid signal that the cow plop is about to hit the proverbial fan with the weather. We are only short weeks from a cold wind that won’t likely quit blowing until next June.

All of this made me wonder what this means for the local real-estate market. The pattern is fairly consistent. Retirees with significant money buy land here to live out their dreams. They choose this place because it’s beautiful and still somewhat affordable compared to much of the rest of Colorado. In fact it’s so affordable that after making the purchase of the property, these people can still afford to put up what could only be termed luxury homes and other structures. Many of these people are in their 60s or older.

In my “neighborhood” there are several examples and more being built all the time. We have huge homes on acreage, some empty for most of the year. There are horse barns and indoor riding arenas worth near what I paid total for my home and property, a price which by the way is now on the low end of the going rate for a vacant 35-acre lot. Some starter-mansions have guest homes bigger than my house.

There’s one particularly beautiful home and barn setup near here. This summer along this property’s lengthy road frontage a rather burley wooden-rail fence appeared. The out-of-state owner of this property visits occasionally.

In the case of my neighbor who is selling out, he has a larger two-story house, horse barn with living quarters, separate loafing shed, spacious workshop, round-pen, arena, dog kennels, and a lot of fencing.

A REALTOR FRIEND of mine says my neighbor need not be too frantic to pack. She says a fairly recent analysis of homes priced $400,000 and above indicates a several-year supply of such properties at the current rate of sales. This poses an interesting socio-economic problem, since the influx of new residents still seems steady, with more and more new, large and expensive homes going up all the time. Wealthy newcomers may look at existing homes, but when they see what’s available and the price tags, it occurs to many of them that for the price they might as well buy land and build exactly what they want.

But what happens when they decide the dream is over, and it’s time to live closer to a grocery store or medical care? What happens when they can’t or don’t want to live here any more?

A few numbers from the 2000 census put an interesting spin on this question. There are 3,503 residents in Custer County, and there are 2,989 housing units. There are also four houses and 4.7 people per square mile.

At first glance these numbers may appear as idyllic as a Custer county autumn, with each person having his or her own home on some acreage. But some other numbers cast a wintry shadow. The median household income is $34,731 and the per-capita income is $19,817. In this county 13.30 percent of the population and 9.80 percent of families live in poverty. Almost half of the population is older than 45. And the only truly visible means of support are the real-estate and construction industries.

WHEN VIEWED IN THIS LIGHT it becomes apparent that a fair number of these homes are sitting empty, and that a good proportion of residents cannot afford these homes. If you live in poverty you likely can’t afford a small lot upon which to place a Tough Shed. If you have a median Custer County family income and good credit you might qualify for a loan of around $100,000. There’s a single-wide trailer on a couple acres near here that the median-income single person may be able to afford.

In the next few years this odd disparity will likely become more apparent, as more and more people reach the autumn of their lives, and decide it’s time to move back to a major town. Some will put their trophy homes on the already-flooded market. A few of these homes will sell, and some sellers, if lucky and/or willing and able to wait, might even get their asking prices. Many of these people will have the means to keep these properties as second homes for vacations or family gatherings. Others will absorb the loss and move on.

In the meantime, despite the glut of trophy homes on the market, those in the median-income range will probably never be able to afford one. And that is perhaps the most interesting and somewhat sad commentary on this strange phenomenon.

For those who can afford to keep their Custer County trophy as a vacation home, I might recommend they make time to visit in the fall. It might make the investment seem more worthwhile.

Hal Walter writes from what only a freelance writer might consider a trophy home in the Wet Mountains.