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Housing market takes off like rocket in region

by RAPHAEL BARTA Contributing Writer
| March 31, 2021 1:00 AM

It was March of 2020 when the enormity of the COVID crisis became apparent.

Adding to that chaos and uncertainty was the political unrest of the upcoming elections and the mass demonstrations across many U.S. cities. In those early spring days, and over the next few months, our politics, our economy, and our entire society were threatened in an existential way. What is remarkable — astounding even — is that the housing market in North Idaho took off like a rocket and still has not stopped setting new price records. It is now March one year later and housing inventory levels are at an all-time low, interest rates are at an all-time low, and demand from buyers is at an all-time high. The big question is: How sustainable is this and will it end badly as it did in the 2008 meltdown. What progress have we made as the community of North Idaho, and where are the bright spots for 2021? How is North Idaho responding to the demand from so many people who want to live here?

Boundary County

The predominantly rural nature of Boundary County stayed intact. That’s no small feat when there is a lot of pressure for splitting larger parcels into small lots. Growth requires certain services, especially sewer and water systems. The two community water systems that serve the county have reached capacity limits, effectively creating a moratorium for water system connections in subdivisions.

For lot sizes five acres or more, a private well can be drilled, but for some subdivisions that are platted and approved with smaller lots, where individual wells are impractical or too expensive, this puts a halt to new housing. It is not easy or quick or cheap to add new capacity to a water system, so this impediment to growth may be several years in the resolution.

In the town of Bonners Ferry, planning leadership under City Administrator Lisa Ailport has been thinking about the opportunities that new growth can bring to the community, and what kinds of housing best suits the future. This forward thinking encompasses connectivity of housing with parks, walking and bike paths, and access to services and amenities.

Bonner County

The installation of utilities and roads has commenced on the University of Idaho lands along North Boyer Avenue. As the infrastructure is completed, it is possible there will be some homes built this summer on what promises to be a welcome addition to the new housing stock for Sandpoint. There have been several other successful residential subdivisions completed during this past year, and many fine examples of infill housing and accessory dwelling units have been built throughout the city. There are only a handful of vacant lots remaining, and the process of gentrification has started with some older dilapidated houses being torn down for new-builds. Commercial property development has been slower, but one notable project is the Kaniksu Health Services building going up east of the Super 1 Foods store on the Milltown Park site. The mild winter has allowed construction to proceed rapidly on this medical building.

The real estate boom has not been limited to the Sandpoint area. Priest River, Clark Fork, and the entire county has seen an influx of new residents. It doesn’t seem like there’s any place too remote anymore. In fact many properties are selling because they are considered remote.

For folks who own their home the price appreciation has created a nice cushion of equity. For many people this is the number one way to build net worth, as long as they are able to keep their jobs and the mortgage payments current.

“Progress” in real estate is not only defined as “more units were constructed ” and “higher prices for sellers” — in fact, these two aspects of Growth may not be Progress at all. Rolling up the drawbridge, pretending that Time is frozen, and wasn’t it great back in 1982 isn’t Progress either. Unless you are a member of the Kullyspel tribe, none of us are native to this place. Progress is how we are accommodating Growth, welcoming newcomers with new ideas and new energy, and building a better more vibrant community. One particular challenge is the children of folks who settled here 30 years ago are now reaching their first home buying years, and there’s nothing affordable for them to get into that all-important starter home. Next year when I write this report, I want to be able to say that North Idaho will be able to retain that younger generation, that they won’t have to head out to other places to find a place to live. That would be Progress.

Raphael Barta is an associate broker with a practice in residential, vacant land, and commercial/investment properties. He can be reached at raphaelb@sandpoint.com.