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December 10, 2016
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Competing for second-home buyers

I’ve been selling real estate in Sullivan County, primarily to second-home buyers from “the city,” for over a decade. It’s been challenging since the real estate market started tumbling, both here and around the nation, in 2007. Both the volume of sales and prices have fallen here about 30% since then. Second homes are a discretionary purchase, and during the darkest days of the recession, buyers were hoarding their acorns.

Last March, the tide abruptly changed. The economy was looking brighter, mortgage rates were low and there were two years of pent-up buyer demand, particularly among young families in New York City, for a country getaway. Talk to almost any realtor focusing on the second-home market here, and they’ll tell you they’ve been much busier over the past year than they’ve been in years.

So it came as a surprise, when I pulled sales data for 2012 from the two multiple listing systems serving Sullivan County, to find that sales were flat. The number of closed single-family home sales in 2012, 476, was just about the same as 2010 and 2011, as was the median sales price $134,000.

So far, that increased buyer interest hasn’t translated into a noticeable pick up in sales. There are lots of buyers looking here, but they’re also looking elsewhere. Six or seven years ago, most of my clients were only looking Sullivan County. We were the hot new country destination and got a lot of ink in the city press. A month wouldn’t go by without an article about Livingston Manor, Jeffersonville, Narrowsburg, Callicoon, Bethel Woods, The Chapin Estate or Catskill Farms. Sullivan was cool.

That’s not the case today. Second-home buyers are casting a very wide net, looking in Dutchess, Columbia, Ulster and Delaware counties along with Sullivan. It’s tough competition, as the torch of cool has passed to places like Roxbury, Millerton and Hudson. We need to embrace the second-home market as a significant industry and job creator, and compete with those counties for second-home buyers as fiercely as we compete for other industries.

One of the biggest issues we face right now is the spectre of fracking. Second-home buyers are afraid of it, and those other areas are seen as risk free, while Sullivan has a scarlet “F” on its back. Almost every realtor working in the western part of the county has lost buyers because of it, even in the towns with bans.

A second big issue here is property taxes. Buyers run for the hills when they see taxes of $12,000 on a house selling for $300,000, a not uncommon occurrence here. Assessments in many towns are way out of line with market value, with newer or renovated second homes often over assessed and longtime primary homes under assessed. Towns need to bite the bullet and do town-wide revaluations to bring things back in line.

We’re also losing on the connectivity front. The county needs a plan to extend wired Internet (cable or DSL) to every house in the county. For most second home buyers, reliable wired high-speed Internet is as crucial as water, and they’ll go where they can get it.

Lastly, our hamlets and villages are assets, and can’t be left to wither. Strategic planning meetings and beautification campaigns only go so far. There needs to be a concerted effort to fill storefronts and help businesses remain viable in hamlets like Livingston Manor and Jeffersonville.

Buyers have choices, and we need to court them. All levels of government, from the county to the town level, need to consider whether decisions like passing property rights resolutions or deferring town-wide reassessments promote or inhibit second-home ownership here. This is a garden that needs to be tended and not ignored.

[David Knudsen lives in Hortonville, NY. He is Associate Broker at the Catskills Buyer Agency in Liberty, NY. You can read his blog at]