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The ugly side of Vail’s real estate

Don Cohen
Vail CO, Colorado

We went shopping and it wasn’t pretty.

Lately a lot of what we’ve been working on at the Economic Council is developing useful data to help business and government leaders better understand the current and future economic landscape of the county and our towns.

One of our areas of focus has been looking at housing. More specifically, affordable workforce housing.



That’s what led me and our staff researcher, Tori Franks on a countywide shopping tour. We asked one of the council’s board members, Barbara Hogoboom with Keller Williams Realty to walk us through (literally) some real-life options.

We started with the assumption that Tori’s household would have a dual income of around $90,000 with about $20,000 for a down payment.



Keeping things in perspective, that’s about $17,000 dollars higher than the average median income in Eagle County. In 2006, the average median income in the county for a three-person household was $72,000.

Our first stop was with a lender at Alpine Bank who pre-qualified Tori and told her that given a dual income and reasonable down payment she would be able to qualify for a $300,000 property and maybe really stretch to a $350,000 choice. That would mean Tori and a partner would be looking at a $2,000-plus monthly payment.

On one hand, it was encouraging to see, with a double income, Tori’s potential buying power. On the other hand, on a single income, there would be zero purchase options. Barbara searched the multi-list database and identified 32 possible properties. Right off the top we ruled out four from Lake County. We also eliminated six modular homes. That left us a total of 22 choices.



The first ugly reality set in when we looked at the handful of choices. In the Denver metro area there are several thousand properties that fit that criteria. Tougher yet, Tori’s preference was to live close to work in the mid-valley area where there were 10 choices, five of which were priced at $330,000 to $350,000, the very high end of Tori’s affordability spectrum.

All the properties we looked at were between 700 to 1,200 square feet. On the west end of the valley there was a manufactured single-family home in Dotsero, a two-bedroom condo in Eagle Ranch and a one-bedroom loft in Eagle. In the Avon area, we looked at three two-bedroom condos. Only the property in Dotsero had a single-car garage. None of the other condos had any kind of covered parking.

In this price range, there were not many other available properties within the county. None in Vail (no surprise there) or Minturn and only one in Eagle-Vail.

Of course, everyone’s tastes are different and one person’s reject may be another’s dream home. Of the six properties we toured, a couple were real turnoffs. One had a leaking refrigerator and the sour smell of cat urine. Another unit was being used as a rental property with four people living in a two-bedroom unit (bunk beds) that looked like a scene out of “Animal House.” This dreary ground-level unit was on the market for $310,000 and had monthly homeowner’s dues of $345, the highest of all the properties we looked at.

A couple of the other condos were pretty nice, though small. One unit in Eagle-Vail was quite sunny, but 20 years of age had taken its toll. It needed new appliances and a $10,000 to $20,000 makeover. The Eagle Ranch unit was modern and bright and it was clear to see why it was up for sale. The owners had a small child and it was clear they were looking for a larger place.

A couple of weeks later a knowledgeable town council member made the point in a housing meeting that often when families have their second child, they take a look at Eagle County real estate and decide to leave the valley in search of getting more home for their money.

This point wasn’t lost on Tori who, as we toured these properties, told me of her friends who are both starting teachers and have purchased a new three-bedroom home with two-car garage and yard in Parker for well under $300,000.

Our shopping experience isn’t an anomaly. It’s absolutely representative of the challenges young buyers are facing in Eagle County. The problem is very, very real and it has our elected officials, business leaders and real-estate developers worried enough to start putting some of their energy toward looking at short- and long-term solutions.

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be some who read this column who say, “What’s the fuss? I managed to buy a home in Eagle County a while back. Those kids will have to find a way just like I did.”

The problem is what might have worked a few years ago, can’t today. I’d ask that individual if he or she could afford to buy the house they live in now on their current salary. My bet is that answer would be no. While housing prices have tripled, real wages have barely risen and that’s an affordability gap that won’t be easily closed.

Shopping for a starter home isn’t pretty. And, for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be downright ugly.

Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County can be reached at dcohen@economiccouncil.biz.


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