White-collar workers, untethered from their desks after companies flipped to remote work because of the pandemic, are taking their housing searches — and their cash — farther from Seattle.
Whatcom County, home to Bellingham, felt the change, too.
Remote workers are nothing new to the Northwest corner of Washington, but local real estate agents say the pandemic felt like hitting the fast-forward button.
“People were coming up to the islands and Whatcom County in droves,” said John L. Scott agent Annie Dameron Pederson. “It became a different market.”
Homebuyers arrive with cash to spend and mountain bikes in tow, said Windermere agent Damian Pro.
“They have this mentality of ‘we want to live our best life,’” Pro said.
As home prices have hit record-highs across the country in the last year, Western Washington has seen the most jaw-dropping growth in areas outside Seattle.
Last month, the median single-family home in Whatcom County sold for $552,550, up about 18% from the same time last year and 37% from the same time in 2019, before the pandemic, according to data released Wednesday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
Elsewhere, the median home price last month in Snohomish County was $675,000, up about 18% from last year. In Pierce County, the median price was $506,650, up 16.5%. In Thurston County, the median of $470,000 is up 20.5%, according to the NWMLS.
Home prices have also climbed in San Juan County, though the small number of sales there can lead to large swings in the numbers. In September, the median home sold for $850,000, down about 6% from the same month last year but up 6% from August.
King County’s $825,600 median is up about 10% year-over-year.
Even so, with the arrival of fall, the local housing market is cooling off some.
In the Puget Sound region, the number of pending sales last month was down compared to August, and home prices are roughly stagnant in most places month-over-month.
More homes were available at the end of September than in August, welcome news for buyers. But look back a little further for context: Far fewer homes are available for sale than at the same time in 2019, before the pandemic.
The measure of how long it would take to sell every for-sale home at current demand, known as months of inventory, inched up slightly in King and Pierce counties, indicating the market is a little less cutthroat. But that measure still remains at less than three weeks.
Brianna Harvey hasn’t looked back since moving from Seattle to Bellingham last summer.
“As soon as it seemed like work-from-home was going to be a long-term thing, I started looking,” said Harvey, who works in tech and grew up in Bellingham.
She wanted to live closer to friends and family and have faster access to mountain biking and trail running. Even with a 20% down payment, Harvey encountered a tough market as she looked for homes in her $400,000 to $425,000 budget. Eventually, she secured a $450,000, two-bedroom bungalow.
“My quality of life has definitely improved,” she said.
Redfin agent Cathie Butler said she works with buyers who have moved from California or the Seattle area, many of them ready with cash to buy in the Bellingham area.
Butler estimates most homes receive eight to 12 offers and sell for about $50,000 to $60,000 more than their list price.
“It’s starting to cool down, but it’s still super competitive,” she said.
Rising prices are driving buyers with less to spend in search of alternatives.
“We have more people than ever reaching out to us,” said Dean Fearing, executive director at the nonprofit Kulshan Community Land Trust. (In a community land trust, the nonprofit owns the land under the home and the homeowner agrees to receive a limited amount of equity in order to keep the home affordable into the future.)
“There just aren’t homes for sale that most working people can afford,” Fearing said.
Kulshan Community Land Trust is in the process of building about two dozen new homes and plans 45 in the next three to five years, Fearing said. The hot market is making it harder for his organization to buy land. The organization’s waiting list ranges from 40 to 70 would-be homebuyers.
“We’ve been discovered,” Fearing said of Whatcom County. “People know this is a community they want to move to. For years, people have been doing that, but the pandemic, the mobility that provided, just accelerated that even quicker.”
The competitive market can intimidate potential sellers, leading them to hold off on moving.
“I hear that a lot: ‘Well, we can’t sell…Where will we go?” said Pro, from Windermere.
Priced out buyers are looking beyond Bellingham to Ferndale, Burlington, Sedro-Woolley and Blaine, he said.
In King County, the Eastside remains red-hot, with the $1.31 million median home price up 26% from the same time in 2020, but the number of new sales was down from August. Seattle’s median price, $850,000, is up about 4%.
For condos, Seattle’s median price of $505,000 is up about 5% from last year and the Eastside median of $566,000 is up 3%.
Rebecca Lieberthal and her husband started searching for a home in the Seattle area last summer as a wave of buyers drawn by low-interest rates went home-shopping. The couple made seven offers, sometimes competing against a dozen other offers, before securing their new home in Burien this summer.
“More than excitement, we felt relief that the process was over,” said Lieberthal, who works as a nurse. As their family grows, they may outgrow the house.
Already, she said, “I’m dreading this process again.”