Three properties owned by the Town of Paonia that went on the market this fall didn't take long to go under contract. Each of the three parcels have what many buyers are looking for in the North Fork area -- small parcels with a house, and small acreages, preferably with good water rights.
New listings in those categories, as well as houses located in Paonia, are often under contract before they appear on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), according to Realtors Bob and Linda Lario with RE/MAX Mountain West. Even homes in the $400,000-$600,000 price range that were on the market for two or three years sold this year.
Sales are outpacing new listings, resulting in a decrease in inventory of 11 percent from this time last year. For the last three or four months, the Larios said they and other area Realtors have watched closely for new listings to show to waiting pre-qualified and cash buyers. First offers are often for the full price or higher. "Everything is selling," said Linda Lario. With qualified buyers waiting for the right property to hit the market, "If there were more inventory, we would have more sales."
The Larios both have more than 40 years of experience in local real estate. They publish "The Lario Report," a semiannual newsletter on market sales and trends. The North Fork area is doing well, they said ahead of the Christmas weekend and just days before their report is scheduled to be released. In 2016 their office grew from six to nine agents. Other Realtors are also very busy, said Bob. "I think the real estate community is thriving."
When asked what draws people to the area, they say it's not jobs. "They are bringing their own jobs, their own money, and their own income," said Bob. People come to Paonia for the "lifestyle," an "all encompassing term" that includes the mild climate, arts, music, "and the eclectic nature of populists... and Paonia's sweet little downtown."
The Larios are listening when people say the area needs jobs. "We agree, but what jobs?" said Bob Lario. "We don't want to attract jobs like natural gas and ruin what people are moving here for."
Recent data from the MLS, which in part accumulates and disseminates information on real estate activities, reflects brisk sales in the Somerset, Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia areas. As of last June, the North Fork area saw 57 closings. Preliminary end-of-year data shows that as of Dec. 20, 152 sales closed in the North Fork area. That's about 10 percent above the number of sales in 2015, said Linda. Those numbers aren't yet verified, and don't include non-MLS member activities or properties sold by owners. If they are right, two thirds of their business happened in the second half of the year, she said.
It's not busy like the Front Range market, which has boomed in the last three or four years, said the Larios. But they have seen properties sell this year after sitting on the market a long time, including the Paonia Cleaners building. The three former Chaco warehouses on Clark Avenue sold, and on Grand Avenue, the former Radio Shack sold and is now the Indigo Autumn health food store. The video store is now The Cirque.
A few higher-priced properties the Larios thought wouldn't sell after listing above market value were under contract within a week. "Those deals are bringing prices up," said Bob, but not sharply. Property values remain far from a "tear-down" level where properties with older houses are worth more without the buildings. People are also tending to avoid houses that need foundation and other major repairs.
By all indications the area is trending toward a seller's market, said Linda. Not like the Denver market, she said, "But we are seeing more back-up offers." With prices trending upward they see owners waiting for the market to hit the right price points before listing their properties.
Activity has continued into the holidays, which has happened before but is highly unusual. From 2004-2006 "the market went crazy," said Bob. "Talk about busy." After the recession in 2008, a lot of people left the business because things weren't selling. They survived because they have been through a lot of ups and downs and have learned to adapt to a changing market. "That's the nature of staying busy," said Bob. "You figure it out and shift your business."
The Larios are watching some listings with interest, including the Electric Mountain Lodge property. Bordering national forest land on Grand Mesa and rebuilt in 2006, the property recently went on the market as a 10,571 square-foot single-family home. "It's going viral," said Linda, who predicts it will sell fairly quickly.
In Hotchkiss, 2016 was a roller-coaster year, said Christi Schmidt with Keller Williams Colorado West Realty. Schmidt has sold real estate in Delta County since 2000. This year saw an active spring, then a slow-down in July. The two months leading up to the election were slow, but not stagnant, said Schmidt. November saw an up-tick in activity, which continued through the holidays. That's not typical for this area, she said.
While sales of commercial properties and properties valued at over $500,000 were slow in 2016, closings at or below the $250,000 range have been brisk. Investors are also buying. The 120-year-old Hotchkiss Hotel, which includes commercial and living space, recently went on the market. From an investor's standpoint it's probably a good investment, said Schmidt, who is curious to see if it will sell. But people aren't looking in that price range.
Buyers are often very specific about which town they want to live in -- Paonia or Hotchkiss, said Schmidt. A graduate of Hotchkiss High School who has also lived in Paonia, she sees Hotchkiss as more centrally located, closer to hospitals, and with a milder climate than Paonia or Crawford.
"There's a lot happening in Hotchkiss," added Schmidt. A new medical clinic recently went under construction and is scheduled to open later this year, and ShadeScapes Americas, which designs shade solutions for a global market, opened on Bridge Street -- Hotchkiss's main street -- in 2016. A new community celebration, the Farm to Fiddle Festival, co-founded by Schmidt's business partner Lynda Cannon, made its debut in 2016. A micro-brewery is in the planning stages, and fiber-optic internet service will soon arrive in Hotchkiss, opening up new opportunities.
A group including Schmidt, Cannon and town representatives is currently working with the Delta County Economic Development to participate in the Department of Local Affairs' new Colorado Main Street program, which provides technical resources and training in economic vitality, design, organization and promotion.
Schmidt says she's optimistic about the future. Following the 2008 economic downturn and subsequent decrease in coalmining activity, prices declined slowly until this year, said Schmidt. They are now leveling out, and some appraisals have come in above purchase prices. "That's a good indicator that the market is improving," said Schmidt. "It feels like things are turning around."
Crawford's real estate market began picking up in 2013 and continues to improve, said Liz Heidrick, owner of Needle Rock Realty, one of two real estate offices in downtown Crawford. In 2016 she increased her staff to five agents, one of whom is Patty Kaech. In her first year as an agent she is ranked seventh among the top sellers in the county.
Heidrick's office sold just under $10 million in 2016, with the majority of sales occurring in the Crawford area. There's a lot happening in Crawford, said Heidrick, who has sold real estate in the area for about 13 years. The two restaurants are thriving, community events are well supported and attended, and there's talk of a coffee shop, a grocery store and an artist's studio and gallery with apartments. "Things aren't moving at breakneck speed," she said. She sees the current level of growth as "steady and healthy and happening at a nice, slow, even pace."
Houses that sat on the market for years finally found the right buyer in 2016, said Heidrick. December has been busy, too. Last Friday her office had showings during a time of year traditionally marked by a lull. She sees the market as a good balance for buyers and sellers. "Crawford is its own micro-climate of real estate," she said. "It keeps its own pace."
Heidrick calls Crawford "a diamond in the rough." It's the smallest and most isolated of the towns in the "Golden Triangle," the name Forbes Magazine dubbed the area between Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia in a 2006 article on the best areas in the country to live. "I call it the sleeping beauty, because it's quiet and beautiful. Look at Needle Rock with the West Elks wrapping around it," the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and Crawford Reservoir, she said.
Crawford also made national news in 2016 when then 15-year-old Jeneve Rose Mitchell, a finalist on the final season of American Idol, told judges she lives "off the grid" on Saddle Mountain.
Heidrick said that early in the town's history a group of citizens attempted to build a bridge over the Black Canyon to connect Crawford to Montrose. People fought hard to stop it. Had that happened, she said, "Crawford would be a tourist town."
Another draw is the area's ranching history, said Heidrick, whose three grown children are fourth-generation Crawford natives. "Cattle is a big part of Crawford lore." Many of the area's ranches are also multi-million dollar properties (one large agricultural property is currently listed at $3.9 million). Two big ranches, the Deutsch and Stirrup Bar, have sold in the last couple of years. Fortunately, she said, buyers and sellers are working together to protect the ranches' heritage.
One of her new agents is 24-year-old son Brady, a former U.S. Marine who decided he wanted to return to Crawford to live. Heidrick said her other son, Tristan, is electrician and also plans to return to his roots after school. "They want to live in Crawford," she said.
Heidrick is optimistic the market will continue to grow and remain active. The main problem she has is a lack of inventory, specifically small acreages with water rights listing for under $350,000. "If I had a bunch of those, I'd be a busy girl," she said.
At the May 9 board meeting, trustee Bill Brunner provided copies of emails, sent during 2016 and 2017, to the media and the town clerk.