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Spurred By Pandemic, Buyers Scoop Up Homes And Mass. Prices Climb Higher05:03
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After months of searching, Jennifer Brogan managed to lock down a two-bedroom house in Centerville, but ended up going $30,000 over her budget. (Courtesy Jennifer Brogan)
After months of searching, Jennifer Brogan managed to lock down a two-bedroom house in Centerville, but ended up going $30,000 over her budget. (Courtesy Jennifer Brogan)

For most people, buying a home is not an easy thing to do. But Jennifer Brogan didn't think it would be this hard.

"I was hoping it would be like those HGTV episodes where you see like three houses and you get to pick the one you like the best, but that did not happen," she said with a laugh. "It had to be almost your full-time job."

Brogan works as a social worker in Middleborough. For decades, she has dreamed of buying a home on Cape Cod — a place where she can be near her mom, and where she’d have a little more space for herself and her adult son, who has autism. This past spring, she began trying to make that dream a reality.

In hindsight, it's hard to imagine how her timing could have been worse.

For months, folks like her have been competing with a wave of buyers from Boston, New York, and Connecticut. According to real estate brokers on the Cape, many of those buyers are wealthier folks, often looking for a second home, or younger professionals with high-paying jobs they can do from home.

Week after week, Brogan scoured listings and visited properties, only to see them scooped up within hours.

And it's not just the Cape. In many parts of the state, it’s gotten harder to buy a home, due in part to city-dwellers who’ve migrated outwards in search of a place to ride out the pandemic. Real estate brokers interviewed by WBUR said that regions such as the Berkshires, and cities such as Worcester have seen major upticks in sales activity.

But the spike in home sales is especially acute for Cape Cod. In September, the number of homes sold in the Cape and Islands region was up 49% compared to the same period last year, according to data from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

And while the influx of people is arguably good for an area that’s struggled to attract year-round residents, some worry it is also making it more difficult for people to afford living there.

"I have never experienced what we are experiencing now," said Debbie Martin, who runs ERA Cape Real Estate. The surge in home buying has made some agents a lot of money and yet, she said soberly, "it's not good. It’s not good for anybody."

Martin pointed to a startling statistic: in September 2019, the median sale price for a single-family house on the Cape was about $436,000. Last month, it was nearly $540,000 — a 24% increase.

"What does that tell you?" Martin said. "What is for sale is going immediately. What is for sale is climbing in price. A lot of people who would normally have access to the market, now don't."

Since March, the spike in sale prices for single-family homes on Cape Cod was dramatic, even compared to a general increase in prices statewide. (Courtesy Massachusetts Association of Realtors)
Since March, the spike in sale prices for single-family homes on Cape Cod was dramatic, even compared to a general increase in prices statewide. (Courtesy Massachusetts Association of Realtors)

In the long term, Martin said, this imbalance worries her. If more affordable homes don’t come to market, that could erode sales. That would eventually hurt realtors, as well as other jobs connected with the real estate industry such as contractors and craftsmen.

Remote work has enabled more people to move to the area, and that could be "a huge opportunity" for the region, said Julian Cyr, a state senator from the Cape and Islands. But it also exacerbates old challenges, such as the dearth of housing options for those who who live and work on the Cape.

"Even before the epidemic, I was saying housing was the most urgent crisis in the region," he said, adding that Cape Codders who may be looking to buy a first home or just a stable place to live, "we frankly just can't compete."

"You have a property owning class who makes quite a bit of money and lives in beautiful homes," he said, "and then a workforce that is increasingly having to live in inadequate housing just to find a place to lay their head."

'Very Little On The Shelves'

With interest rates near historic lows, house hunters across the state who are hoping to get a piece of the shrinking real estate pie face stiff competition.

"I think this is the most competitive I’ve seen the market during my time in the industry," said Kurt Thompson, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

From speaking to realtors around the state, Thompson said he has heard stories about sellers who are receiving dozens of offers, buyers who are purchasing site-unseen, and aspiring homeowners who are even writing personal letters to sellers to make the case for why their bids should be chosen over others.

In many parts of the state, he said, homes are as hard to find right now as basic goods were during the early days of the pandemic.

"It's like if you walked into a supermarket looking for water or toilet paper. That's kind of how the shelves look for real estate right now," he said. "Very little on the shelves."

To understand the severity of the shortage, Thompson said it helps to think about housing supply in terms of the "monthly supply of inventory" — that is, an estimate for how many months the market can continue, without adding new properties for sale, before the current supply is sold out.

Massachusetts overall had just 1.4 months of for-sale inventory at the end of September, the state realtors' association estimated, a 58% decline from a year earlier.

Into this super competitive market, stepped Jennifer Brogan. On a recent morning, after months of searching, she spotted a listing for a two bedroom home near the middle of the Cape — a blue, ranch-style house with a renovated kitchen and a backyard spacious enough to have friends over.

"I called my realtor immediately. She called the listing agent immediately," Brogan said. "And when we arrived, they already had, I think it was either one or two offers."

Brogan submitted a bid of her own. After a bit of negotiation, she made a final offer of about $350,000. Then, she waited, sending a prayer out into the universe. Hours later, her agent called.

"She’s like, 'You got the house!' " Brogan said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, how?' "

Brogan said it feels "crazy" to pay that much — it was $30,000 over her budget, and she had to dip into her retirement account.

"But that's the market now," Brogan said. "I felt like I got mostly what I was looking for, and I'm very happy about it."

This segment aired on October 20, 2020.

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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