STAR, Idaho – The new “For Sale” sign had been posted in the yard for less than 10 minutes when the first visitors started driving by the house, slowing down and stopping to take pictures. Trevor Descisciolo watched from his front lawn, trying to understand how the home he referred to as “a basic little starter” had suddenly become a destination in the far exurbs of Boise.
A few minutes later, another car pulled to the curb, and the driver rolled down his window. “Do you guys have a list price yet?” he asked.
“We’re finalizing it soon,” Descisciolo said. “What kind of place are you looking for?”
The driver stared for a moment and considered the house. It was a two-story craftsman in a subdivision of mass-produced homes, where identical mailboxes aligned the sidewalk and some of the cul-de-sacs backed up to cornfields. “Honestly?” he said. “At this point we’re looking for pretty much anything.”
In the record-setting housing market of 2021, homeownership has become the dividing line for a fractured economy that’s racing toward extremes. Real estate values have surged by almost 25% since the beginning of the pandemic, creating more than $1 trillion in new wealth for existing homeowners. Many of them have used that money to buy investment properties and second homes, further driving up prices while first-time buyers increasingly struggle to afford anything at all.
Homeowners on average are now reported to have as much as 80 times greater net worth than renters, who continue to suffer disproportionately from some of the pandemic’s worst effects: high rates of unemployment, eviction and a historic increase in the cost of living.
Descisciolo had moved from California to Idaho a few years earlier with his wife and two young daughters, in part because the area was still affordable for a middle-class family. He’d managed to buy their home in a new suburb called Star in 2018 with help from a relative, spending $239,000 for a new three-bedroom house with a horseshoe pit in the backyard.
During the next few years, he’d watched out his back window as the Boise metropolitan area continued to expand outward, until the crop dusters slowly disappeared from the sky above his house and construction crews built another subdivision behind his backyard.
Then, early in the pandemic, he’d begun to receive form letters from investors offering to buy his home. “We can pay now. We can pay cash,” one read. Descisciolo started checking the estimated value of his house on Zillow, watching in disbelief as it continued to rise by $30,000 each month, until it felt to him like the only sensible thing to do was to sell and then use the proceeds to build a bigger home for his family farther from the city.
Now he walked back inside the house to meet with his Realtor before the listing went public. Katie McFerrin was one of the top-selling agents in Boise, but she’d never had a year like this. Her business had more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. She’d already helped sell 26 homes in 2021 – all for above asking price, with multiple offers. The question was no longer whether one of her homes would sell but for exactly how much and how quickly, and she told Descisciolo that she expected the entire process to unfold over the course of the weekend: a day or two of showings, an open house Saturday, and then offers due by the end of Sunday night.
McFerrin had worked to maximize the value of the house by hiring a deep cleaner, a landscaper to trim the tree out front, and a stager to redecorate. She’d also brought in a drone photographer to take aerial pictures of the foothills in the distant background, and now she showed Descisciolo a glossy brochure with a picture of his home above a list price of $485,000.
“A half-million dollars,” Descisciolo said. “It’s wild. It’s more than twice what we paid.”
“It’s where the market has taken us,” McFerrin said, because in just the past year the median home price in the Boise area had risen from $360,000 to $523,000. “It seems crazy, but this is basically our new average.”
“That price makes me think of a luxury home, or some kind of estate,” Descisciolo said. “I love this place, but you know – it’s normal. It’s a house.”
“Right now, that should be enough,” McFerrin said.
– – –
McFerrin posted the listing online and went back to her office to watch the traffic grow: 34 views in the first 10 minutes, 238 within an hour, more than 1,000 by the end of the afternoon. The Boise area had an average of 25 active buyers for each available house, many of whom were investors who offered to pay above asking price with all cash, which meant hundreds of first-time buyers had spent months trying and failing to find a home. Their standard offers now typically included a personal note written to the seller.
“Here’s a picture my 5-year-old drew of our family in your beautiful backyard,” wrote one first-time buyer, as part of an offer on a two-bedroom home in April.
“I’m an Army veteran and a fifth generation Idahoan,” wrote another first-time buyer. “My salary’s stayed the same for the last five years while housing prices tripled. I’m worried I’ll have to leave this state I love.”
“This is our 23rd offer, but now we’re convinced that God is at work, because seeing your home convinced us that the other 22 were not right for us.”
“Please, no more love letters,” one agent had written in her listing. “All offers will be considered. This is strictly a financial transaction.”
Increasingly, there were many buyers who viewed it the same way, and now a little while after the listing went public, two investors pulled up to the home in Star with their real estate agent.
Carl and Vickie Foster had retired from their CPA business in Portland, Ore., moved to Idaho for its beauty and affordability in 2014, and begun buying real estate close to wherever their children and grandchildren lived. During the pandemic, they’d seen their equity grow each month, and they’d used some of that new wealth to buy more homes. They’d sold a house in Arizona and then used the proceeds to purchase two more houses. They’d sold another and bought two more, sold and bought more, until finally they’d accumulated 21 houses across six states. They owned farms in Oregon, suburban houses in Idaho, and a 17th story penthouse in downtown Minneapolis. They’d bought half a dozen properties since the pandemic began, and now they hoped to buy at least one more before the end of the weekend.
Their agent took them into the house, and after 15 minutes of knocking on countertops and opening closet doors, they came back outside. They stood on the porch and looked down the block at a row of square front yards framed by rose bushes and decorated with American flags.
“So, what do you think?” the agent asked.
“You know me,” Carl said. “I don’t like to fall in love with anything, but it’s nice. Wholesome.”
“I could see a young family moving in and being very happy here,” Vickie said.
“How will it cash flow for us as a rental?” Carl asked, and the agent said they would be able to rent it easily for about $2,300 a month. So many families had been priced out of buying a house that the rental market in the Boise area had also become competitive, and rents had increased 18% since the pandemic began.
“This house would do very nicely for you – same as the others,” the agent said. “How many do you have here now?”
“I guess it’s 10,” Carl said.
“Nine,” Vickie corrected.
Carl thought for a moment and started to count on his fingers. There was the single-family house they’d purchased a few years ago for $240,000 that had already more than doubled. There was their residence on the other side of town, which they’d bought in 2014 for $600,000 and was now valued at more than $1.5 million.
“Huh, I guess you’re right,” he said. “Nine. I must have already been counting this one.”
“Maybe it’s a sign,” his wife said. “Let’s run the numbers and then write it up.”
– – –
The next day McFerrin arrived for the open house with their offer already in hand – all cash, with an escalation clause to pay over asking price if necessary. “This puts us in great shape, and we’re just getting started,” McFerrin told the sellers, and then she walked through each room of the house to make final preparations. She cleaned toddler handprints off the sliding-glass back door, rearranged a bowl of fake artichokes on the kitchen counter, and dusted a new piece of artwork hanging on the living room wall that read: “It’s a good day to have a good day!”
Two minutes before the open house, she stood in the kitchen and scrutinized the room. “Is it me, or does it still smell a tiny bit lived-in?” she asked her assistant.
“I was thinking that,” her assistant said, and a few minutes later she came back with air freshener.
McFerrin opened the front door and visitors started to rotate through the house as she greeted them one by one. In came a curious neighbor from down the block. “It’s not as nice as mine, but I still bet it goes way over,” he said. In came an investor from Colorado: “What time would you need an offer?” A few dozen people moved through the house, and then there was also a car that kept cruising by outside, looping circles around the nearby cul-de-sacs.
Craig and Heidi Christensen were tired of crowded open houses and submitting offers that were never accepted. They’d toured the home by themselves with a real estate agent earlier in the day, and now they drove through the neighborhood and stopped at the school to see if it would work for their two high school children. They’d seen more than 50 houses in the past three months, and the only thing that had changed about their housing search in Boise was that the prices continued to rise. They’d gone from looking at homes listed for a maximum of $400,000, to stretching their budget up to $450,000, to now considering spending $500,000 or more.
“It’s on the far, far end of our range,” Craig said. “We’d be looking at five times our old house payment.”
“We need somewhere to live,” Heidi said. “If we keep going like this for another few months, we might be looking at the same places for $600,000. What choice do we have?”
They’d spent the past 20 years living outside Salt Lake City, until Craig accepted a job transfer in March to make canned food in Boise for a network of churches and charities. Food insecurity in the region had doubled during the pandemic, and he’d been hired to help. He wanted to buy a home before moving the rest of his family, so for the past four months he’d been living by himself in a small camping trailer and looking at houses each day after work. Most of the homes he’d seen in his price range tended to have low-slung ceilings, small yards, cramped bedrooms and 45-minute commutes into Boise. “No way these houses can sell for this much!” he’d texted Heidi once, but each time the houses sold for above asking price and were off the market within a week.
They’d only bought one home before, 25 years ago, when $97,000 afforded them a new house with four bedrooms and three bathrooms. The house in Star was smaller, but they liked the high ceilings, the spacious closets and the private backyard. Their agent had told them that they would probably need to offer close to $500,000 with a strong escalation clause.
“Is it really worth that?” Craig asked.
“A whole bunch of people seem to think it is,” Heidi said.
“I guess I’m still struggling to adjust my expectations,” he said.
“How much longer can you really live in a camper?” Heidi asked, and a few minutes later they told their agent to start working on their offer.
– – –
The house had been on the market for less than four days when McFerrin called her client to begin closing her 27th transaction of the year. “People loved your house,” she told Descisciolo. “We’ve got two really great offers, which means you get to decide.”
There was the offer from Carl and Vickie Foster, with an escalation clause that would go up to $511,000. “Obviously, all-cash is great,” McFerrin said. Then she told them about the offer from the Christensens, which came with a small down payment but a purchase price that escalated up to $513,000. “I talked to their Realtor, and it’s actually a neat story,” McFerrin said. “They’ve missed out on multiple offers, and they’re starting to run out of hope, and they’d never been willing to do an escalation clause before. So, the fact that they managed to come in with an offer this strong, I’m impressed. They really want this house.”
“I know people who are struggling to get into houses right now, so I have some sympathy there,” Descisciolo said.
McFerrin waited a few seconds for him to make his decision, until finally she broke the silence. “So?” she said. “What do we think?”
“I like the idea of the house going to a family that needs it,” Descisciolo said.
“That’s sweet,” she said. “I’ll start delivering the news.”
She called the other agents, who called their clients. The Fosters picked up while they were visiting another possible investment property. “That’s OK,” Carl Foster said, and in the next days he invested instead by buying a duplex and a house for a relative in rural Oregon.
The Christensens were driving back toward Utah for a weekend with family when they saw an incoming call from their agent. “This is my favorite kind of phone call,” he told them.
“Wait. We actually got it?” Craig said, and over the next hours their disbelief turned into excitement, and then that excitement gave way to the reality of emptying bank accounts and making payment plans. “We’re going to be strapped to the hilt, but it’s a nice place to live,” Craig said, and a few weeks later he was back in the camper, making one final trip to move some of his belongings from Utah to Idaho. He pulled into their subdivision in Star, where just down the block from their new home was a similar house with a brand-new sign out front. “For Sale” it read, and the price was listed as $550,000.