‘Keep grinding it out:’ Making it in the Vail Valley is tough for builders, bankers
Just because you build or finance homes, it's still tough to make it in the Vail Valley
Making it is tough in the Vail Valley, even for those who build homes and help finance them.
Nick Haller is a project manager for RA Nelson, one of the valley’s biggest construction firms.
Haller came to the valley in 2019 as an intern, working on a construction management degree from Colorado State University.
Finding a stable place has been “a bit of a process,” Haller said. “I didn’t have housing until about a week before I was supposed to start.”
Haller at first fell victim to a rental scam for a place in Breckenridge. He lost $500, not a huge amount of money, ‘but it still sucked — that was a big chunk of money fresh out of college.”
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At the last minute, Haller found an apartment in the Riverwalk area of Edwards. It was the only thing he could find.
Thursday: ‘Keep grinding it out:’ Making it in the Vail Valley is also tough for builders, bankers
Friday: Working in the new West: Vail’s economic past, present creates an interesting case study for towns planning the future
“About 70% of my income was going to rent,” Haller said, adding he was eating a lot of canned soup at the time. Between rent and putting gas into his truck, “that sucked the bank account really quick.”
That money-sucking existence lasted until June of this year, when Haller’s Riverwalk place was put up for sale by the landlord.
Forced again to find a place, Haller again found few choices in the market, complicated by the fact that he has a dog. Further complicating matters is the fact that Haller, like many in his business, often works strange hours and frequently brings work home — especially given how busy everyone in the construction business is these days. That can complicate life with roommates, so Haller was looking for a place of his own.
‘It’s tough finding roommates in the same part of life I am,” he said, adding “you never know what you’re getting into with roommates.”
As is frequently the case with finding places to live, good fortune played a part in Haller’s story.
Some coworkers this year bought a place in Eagle’s Eby Creek neighborhood, and the place has a small lock-off unit.
There isn’t much to the place. There’s a half-kitchen, and enough room for a bed and a couch.
But the neighborhood’s nice, and there’s a big yard for the dog, so “I feel OK with my situation,” he said.
Stunting business growth
Rich Clubine bought Active Energies, a solar energy firm, about five years ago. In that time, the business has boomed, with roughly 35% year-over-year growth from last year to this one. The staff has more than tripled in five years, from seven full-time employees to 23. And, Clubine said, he could use 10 more year-round people. A number of seasonal people are also needed every year.
As you’d expect, housing has crimped Active Energies’ expansion plans. Clubine said the open positions at his company draw plenty of interest. The jobs pay well, and the company offers a suite of benefits.
But housing, when it comes to availability and cost, is a constant hindrance. Clubine said he’s written letters of recommendation to landlords, but those tend to get lost “when there (are) 50 people applying for a place,” he said.
Beyond housing company employees, Clubine understands all too well the challenge of getting established in the valley.
Clubine moved to the valley full-time in 2017 but had been coming to the valley since 2014. He knew moving his family was going to be a challenge, so he “sold everything I owned” before coming.
“We kept our (personal) possessions and the car,” Clubine said. Everything else went toward buying a business and a home in EagleVail.
The housing crunch has only grown tighter, and more expensive, since then.
To help house workers, Active Energies recently purchased a five-bedroom home in Red Cliff. Two of those rooms are occupied now.
The home isn’t supposed to make money for the company. “My goal is to break even,” he said.
The current staff is all housed at the moment, although their addresses range from Gypsum to East Vail. Three employees live in Grand County, which prompted Active to open an office there. Another person lives in Summit County and meets crews at job sites.
Active Energies is no different than other construction firms. Everyone is busy, and everyone is looking for more people.
“One thing we’ve got going for us, is we treat our people really, really well — people can live the lifestyle they want to live,” Clubine said.
It’s always been tough
Those new to the valley face an exceptional housing crunch today, but it’s always been tough to get settled.
Grant Murphy in 1998 was fresh out of college at Colorado Mesa University — then Mesa State College — in Grand Junction. He’d worked for Alpine Bank in that city for about a year when he came to the Vail Valley, accepting a promotion to run the bank’s new Gypsum branch.
When the job offer in Gypsum came, Murphy’s wife was a few months away from finishing her degree at Mesa State. The couple was living in their first home, a small place they’d purchased for $58,000.
Not wanting to commute, Murphy rented a room in a friend’s basement in Gypsum, then spent a lot of weekend time on Interstate 70 visiting Grand Junction.
Over those first months that Murphy was in the local banking business, he said he got used to the “sticker shock” of Grand Junction prices versus those in Gypsum.
Murphy’s wife started to become accustomed to the price difference, too. She’d tell her husband, “I don’t mind living in a trailer, but just don’t want to live in a $250,000 trailer.”
Discouraged by the search, the Murphys turned to the old strategy of “drive ‘til you qualify,” and found a place in New Castle. It was a much shorter commute to Gypsum but still required driving through Glenwood Canyon every workday.
Feeling a need to be in the Vail Valley, the Murphys sold their home in New Castle and bought a lot at the Chatfield Corners development in Gypsum. They rented for a couple of years.
“We saved our money and watched our expenses” until they could afford to build, Murphy said. The Murphys still live in that home.
While moving around, looking for the right place, the Murphys tried to keep their heads.
“When we first thought about coming up here, I said ‘If we think about this every day, it’s going to drive us crazy,'” Murphy recalled.
So the Murphys decided to not think about buying for a while until they decided if they wanted to stay in the valley.
Making that commitment can require a lot of soul-searching.
“That’s the goal here,” Haller said. “But affording a house is the hard part.”
John Halloran is another project manager at RA Nelson. He’s also been in the valley for a while, moving to the valley in 2000. Halloran’s residence history has all been in and near EagleVail, and includes renting, buying, selling, renting during the worst of the Great Recession, then buying a home from a 2012 foreclosure sale.
Halloran’s wife is an educator, so the couple makes a good income. Still, life gets expensive with two kids.
It was also tough to get by during the depths of the recession in 2008 and 2009. That year, county real estate sales dropped from more than $2 billion in 2007 to only about $900 million in 2009. Construction activity nosedived. RA Nelson kept its crews working, taking jobs that included renovating the River Run apartments in EagleVail.
For those coming to the valley or recent residents, Halloran said the best situation would be sharing a place.
What can you (really) afford?
“It’s nice if (people) have a connection,” Halloran said, adding that housing and the cost of living is the top concern at RA Nelson.
For those trying to buy into the valley’s real estate market, Murphy said his best advice to prospective borrowers is to “look at your own budget and what you think you can afford.”
What someone can afford goes beyond just how a rent or mortgage payment stacks up against their take-home pay. People also need to ask themselves if they want to travel, have children, or any number of other costly other expenses.
There are other complications if someone can find a home to buy.
People need to have enough assets and income, of course. But, Murphy said, “We haven’t seen large companies buying large numbers of homes for rentals.” There’s no history for that trend, so it’s difficult to envision what happens if the trend ends, or if those large companies start selling their holdings in bulk.
But, Muphy said, the challenges of life in the valley are worth the effort.
“Keep grinding it out,” he said. “You have already won the lottery if you live in the Eagle Valley.”