The pandemic has sparked a rush of home-buyer interest and rapid price increases in many regions, but for mountain markets, this activity has been even more dramatic.
With buyers suddenly able to work remotely for extended periods, ski destinations from Aspen to the Swiss Alps have seen an influx of activity beyond the traditional winter seasons, shrinking inventory and pushing up prices.
“There are [currently] six new properties under contract at $30 million or more,” said Heather Sinclair, founder and managing partner of The Agency’s Aspen, Colorado, office. “We’re seeing some really big numbers trading in Aspen, and we have a lot of wealth and new buyers coming from all over the world.”
After the dizzying highs of late 2020 and early 2021, activity appears to be coming somewhat back down to earth.
“There was more of a feeding frenzy and an attitude of ‘I don’t care if I see it, I have to buy it’ last summer versus this summer,” said Stephanie Skinner, an agent with Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty in Whitefish, Montana. “It’s gotten to a point where buyers are coming in and saying ‘let’s negotiate’ and they’re willing to walk away if the seller is just unrealistic. That’s created a little correction.”
That said, ski home inventory remains chronically low, and prices have been pushed to new heights over the past year and a half. “There’s not enough new inventory coming on, and I don’t see it loosening up,” said Raifie Bass, an agent with Douglas Elliman in Aspen.
For prospective buyers, this can all create anxiety over buying at the top of the market only to see prices correct or fall in the future. But buyers can strategically navigate mountain markets by focusing the home search on properties that are the most likely to hold their value in the long run due to location and features that are perennially in demand.
Focus on Location—And Views
While mountain markets may have their own intricacies, when searching for a home that will hold up as a long-term investment, some factors are universal.
“The old adage remains true here: location, location, location,” said Sally Shiekman, a certified residential specialist with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty. “If somebody is looking for a home in a ski town, they want proximity to the slopes and easy access to skiing.”
Ski-in/ski-out homes with direct mountain access are particularly coveted entities in most mountain towns.
“Aspen doesn’t have a lot of ski-in/ski-out properties and the ones we have are very expensive and very limited,” Mr. Bass said. “It’s like oceanfront or riverfront property. Things like that will always hold value because they just can’t build any more of them.”
In European markets, buying with an eye to location can also mean evaluating the quality of the resort you’re buying into, rather than just the home itself.
“The advice I would give is to look very carefully at the resort you’re buying,” said Alex Koch de Gooreynd, a partner at Knight Frank who focuses on Swiss, Austrian and Portuguese markets. “What has the resort done to improve the infrastructure locally? Is this truly a year-round resort, and if so, what are they doing [to encourage that]? You really want to understand [what the resort is doing] and what visitor numbers are if you’re going to rent out your chalet when you’re not using it.”
Mountain views are also at the top of priority lists, and properties that have them are more likely to retain their value and re-sell quickly.
“Views are always important to buyers,” Ms. Shiekman said. “That’s a big plus for value when you go to sell a property. Either a view of a ski area or a panoramic view of the town and mountains.”
For Future Upside, Look to Older Homes
Even in such a high-demand, low-inventory market, luxury buyers are still firmly gravitating toward newer homes with more modern designs and recent renovations.
“What our sales team is seeing is a sort of flight to quality over the last few years, partly as a result of the pandemic,” said Kate Everett-Allen, partner, residential research at Knight Frank, and co-author of the firm’s 2021 ski report. “People are looking for turnkey properties that are ready to move into and don’t require any sort of renovation.”
Meaning, then, that buyers who are willing to consider older properties may find an opportunity even in the most competitive markets. “For those that are looking for a potential opening in the market where they can add value, if they can identify properties that need some TLC, that would be one area to target,” Ms. Everett-Allen said.
For buyers with eventual resale values in mind, older properties can present an opportunity—if they’re willing to renovate.
“There are a lot of classic ski homes in Park City [in Utah] that were built in the ’80s and have more traditional mountain style, lots of stone, lots of wood, darker, and heavier palates and textures that aren’t as on trend with today’s tastes,” said Brendan Trieb, an agent with Summit Sotheby’s International Realty in Park City. “We see a lot of people taking these very classic homes and making a more modern rendition. It’s relatively easy to change the paint, flooring, countertops and light fixtures.”
Mr. Trieb added, “People who aren’t afraid of putting in sweat equity can go into an older space with great views and locations and put a modern twist on it. That’s where you can find value right now.”
Consider Year-Round Seasonal Features
With an increasing number of buyers working remotely and treating their ski-homes as co-primary residences, homes that once served as winter holiday getaways are turning into year-round destinations. This means that buyers are gravitating toward home with as much space as possible, and considering features that may not have been as essential in previous years.
“It used to be that when people looked for ski homes, oftentimes they were only coming here for the winter months, so they were only concerned about how that property lives in the winter months,” Mr. Trieb said. “Now a lot more owners are spending more time here in the summer or becoming year-round residents. So you might be looking at a property because you’ll be using it for skiing, but you also need to think about summer.”
Mr. Trieb suggested homes directly in town, where the owner can bike to a coffee shop or other activities during the summer months. “And think about if you have a good outdoor living space. Year-round living in what’s traditionally been a more winter-centric market is important,” he said.
While the details can be daunting, experts don’t advise prospective ski-home buyers to put off their purchase in hopes that markets will cool down, or prices will drop.
“You’re not saving any money by waiting,” Ms. Skinner said. “If you’re waiting to see if prices are going to go down, I don’t see that happening.”