Like most people this year, chances are you’ve wished for a change of scenery. Whether you’re tired of looking at the walls of your two-bedroom apartment or three-story townhouse, you’re not alone.
According to Mansion Global, owned by Dow Jones, ever since COVID-19 came to the U.S., there has been one priority among high-end homeowners living in cities: to get out and stay out. Second-home markets have seen record numbers in sales and rentals.
“We knew there was a pent-up demand as sales had been flat in the countryside for a number of years,” said Gloria Rose Ott, vice president and broker associate for Sotheby’s International Realty. “Super-low interest rates and stock market earnings gave more people flexibility. But, in my opinion, the phenomenal surge in buying is directly related to COVID and its impact on our lives.”
Ott personally covers Virginia’s Fauquier, Loudoun, Rappahannock, Prince William, Clarke, Warren and Frederick counties, as well as some of the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville — commonly known as Hunt Country and the Piedmont — on a case-by-case basis.
“Yes, the market is hot, but it is also transformed,” she said.
In the past, second-home/country buyers were looking for recreational purposes like horseback riding, hunting and gardening. Now, buyers are seeking refuge, a space to spread out and distance from their neighbors. “There’s less congestion, less traffic to and from various destinations and more self-contained, semi-off-the-grid properties for families to enjoy and feel safe,” Ott explained.
Like Ott, fellow Hunt Country realtor for Thomas & Talbot Emily Ristau has seen “incredible activity” in the business. Based in Middleburg, Ristau works in Loudoun and Fauquier counties, occasionally venturing “over the mountain” to Clarke County.
“Generally, the market slows in July and August, with people going away on vacation,” she said. “People are now staying close and not leaving. A lot in town are getting second homes out here.”
Ristau, who has a second home herself in Georgetown, advises buyers who want to take the plunge to make sure there is ease of access between your two properties. She thinks the Hunt Country is especially popular because it’s a short ride to Dulles Airport.
Ott cautioned second-home buyers to work with local agents and brokers who know every back road and hilltop in the region. It’s her version of “shopping local.” Agents in the market know more about the history and idiosyncrasies of particular properties, roads and areas. “In the end, we become your neighbors. And we rely on one another very differently in the countryside,” Ott said.
Ott often tells her clients, “You’ll know it when you see it.” She reminds them that a story online may draw them in, but it’s seeing things like 100-year-old oak trees, antique brass on a front door handle and the like that makes a buyer say, “This is what I had in mind.
”If you haven’t bought a home in recent years, expect to see the practice of real estate relying heavily on technology, including digital photography and video. And COVID has, of course, changed the typical homebuying process. With social-distancing and quarantine requirements, it is now more essential than ever to show in photos what a property is all about. Expect to have lots of phone conversations with your realtor and, when you do meet in person, wear a mask (remember: no handshakes or hugs).
Ott noted that there are specific instructions about not touching surfaces in a home, such as light switches and belongings. Buyers are asked to leave children with a babysitter, too.
As far as what to expect going into the fall season, Ott said brokers rely on trends to build their business plans for the year and to manage their inventory and time. “This year, we have been occupied by safety and urgency and even some panic,” she commented. “My hunch is a bit of the buying surge has subsided, but there is a higher-than-average demand for country property that may start as a second home and morph into a primary one.
”At first, Ristau responded to the same question much like the rest of us have been saying all year: “I have no idea! Every day is something different.” She went on to say she thinks the market will probably be a lot like today, with buyers interested in more space to spread their wings a bit.