The Universal Notebook: The agony of house hunting in a red-hot market

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This is a tough time to be looking for a home in southern Maine. It’s a seller’s market in which local buyers have to compete with out-of-state buyers paying cash way over the asking price for Maine properties sight unseen.

The real estate market is a function of supply and demand. Maine has a low inventory at the same time that buyers have been desperately fleeing the COVID-19-ridden cities to our south.

For the past few weeks, I have been assisting family members as they seek to move home to Maine from out of state. Having sold their home for big-city bucks, they are in a position to buy pretty much whatever they want in small-town Maine, but they can’t seem to act fast enough to do so. Within hours of being listed, Maine homes are being snatched up by people who don’t have to wait for financing, appraisals, title searches, or inspections.

My personal experience as a home buyer is very limited. I remember my parents buying our house in Westbrook for $14,500 in 1960. In 1982, my lovely wife Carolyn and I paid $40-something thousand for the little Cape in Yarmouth where we raised three daughters.

When we sold the Yarmouth house 32 years later for five times what we paid for it, we still couldn’t afford a bigger, better home in Yarmouth. That’s why we live – quite happily, thank you – in Brunswick. The house we paid $300K for in 2014 might fetch closer to $500K today.

Our role in the recent family house-hunting has been pretty much as preliminary scouts. Our out-of-state relatives email us listings as soon as they are posted. We do a drive-by and report what we see. Then when they come to Maine for showings, we don surgical masks and plastic gloves and tag along.

We’ve probably toured 15 or 20 homes from Scarborough to Harpswell, several of them owned by people I know. I’m afraid while others are checking out basements, bedrooms, and heating systems, I’m checking out the artwork on the walls.

There was one home in Yarmouth they really wanted to look at but couldn’t get an appointment. I’m told there were more than a dozen offers and the winning bid was something like $250,000 above the asking price. That’s what great schools and an intact village center will do for your property values.

We kind of ruled out Portland, where everything desirable seems to cost more than a million dollars and you can pay half that for a dump. We’ve seen a bunch of places we all liked – a venerable pile out near Scarborough Beach; a gorgeous piece of overgrown property on Mere Point; a pair of distinctive homes in Falmouth, one built in 2015, the other in 1815. But there always seems to be an issue: too close the road, too far from town, too old, too shady, not shady enough, too much space or not enough, radon, over-priced, needs too much work, or a sale is pending to a competitor who got there first.

When we bought this house in Brunswick I found it online the first day I looked, but Carolyn, the consummate comparison shopper, had to see everything else on the market before we finally pulled the trigger a few months later. Had the market been as hot in 2014 as it is in 2021, we could very well be homeless today.

Or living in a raised ranch out in the boonies. 

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Pardon my confusion: Rob Caldwell of WCSH contacted me about last week’s column on News Center Maine to politely point out (because Rob does everything politely) that Dave Silverbrand did not work for WCSH. Here’s what the host of “207” had to say: “For the record, Dave Silverbrand never worked at WCSH. He was at Channel 13. He left Portland in the late ‘80s, which is why I was astonished about five years ago when I was walking out of Marshall’s in South Portland and a guy said to me, ‘Hey, I know you – you’re on TV. You’re Dave Silverbrand!’”

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.