Originally appeared in the Idaho Business Review / Author: Ken Levy
Despite any still-lingering COVID-19 concerns, interest in visiting and recreating in the mountain communities of Valley County — McCall, Cascade, Donnelly and neighboring areas — has grown virtually unabated.
And real estate sales are running apace.
Statewide lockdowns, mandated early on in the pandemic, appear to have caused little more than a bump in the feverish interest in the recreational paradise, and may actually have boosted it.
Lindsey Harris, director of the McCall Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, said the lockdown “had everybody terrified. No one knew at the time what to expect or how long it would continue.”
But businesses, particularly restaurants, took the initiative when the pandemic struck to shut down of their own accord, before there was any government mandate. A regional task force was created, comprising area chambers of commerce, businesses, the county and cities and the medical community, sharing weekly calls “to keep tabs so that we all knew what each other was doing. It’s made us stronger, and improved lines of communication that will transcend the pandemic,” Harris said.
But it seems fear of severe negative economic impacts from the pandemic may have been somewhat overblown.
“The only slowdown in the market for us was because there was so much unknown information in March, April and May (2020),” said Sadie Noah, associate broker with Equity Northwest Real Estate and realtor at Sadie Noah Real Estate Group. “As soon as those opportunities to visit opened up again, to reopen vacation rentals and restaurants and hotels, we saw a massive increase.”
And local-option tax collections for January and February 2021 were up about 33% over the same period in 2020, despite the cancellation of the region’s biggest winter event.
“Even without Winter Carnival, which is a huge revenue stream for us, we were still up,” Harris said.
Last July, in spite of traditional fireworks programs being canceled and fears of losses in hotel reservations and other revenue, local-option tax collections for the month still exceeded previous years.
Lot and land sales soar
The same story is apparent in the real estate market. Despite concerns of a dramatic slowdown due to COVID-19 in Valley County real estate over the past year, sales have actually risen to new heights.
“There’s definitely a significant, heightened amount of interest up here,” Noah said. “It’s gotten exponentially busier.”
So much busier, in fact, that 2020 was her best year in the 25 years she’s sold real estate. Noah said residential growth really started to kick in during mid to late summer of 2020, and lot and land sales have followed suit, especially as residential inventories plummeted. “In the last six months, we’re seeing a significant increase of people buying lots who want a little bit of elbow room, she said.
Many want lots ranging from one to five acres. They don’t want a small, in-town lot, but they want to be close to the amenities available there.
Lot sales lead the way in growth in the Cascade area as well, according to Broker Dave O’Brien at Cascade Lake Realty.
Growth in the area has come primarily from small-acre land purchases from folks he believes intend to build their own homes there. The bulk of purchases are in the same one-to-five-acre range.
If there had been more housing to sell, it likely would have sold quickly.
Normally, “we would have had maybe 45 homes on the market. Currently, we have about four. We’ve been ranging between four and seven homes,” he said.
Homes that are priced right will be gone in two weeks.
Economically, the big question is whether this year is just an anomaly because of the pandemic or whether there will continue to be an uptick in visitors. Variables this winter included the coronavirus-induced closing of the Canadian border, which likely deflected many of the new visitors to the McCall region for winter recreation.
“My hunch is people fell in love with this area, and they’ll come back,” Harris said.
New construction proposals on the rise
The constant influx of newcomers to Idaho will also boost visits — and interest in real estate — to the area. But the community is limited by key factors including the cost of land, construction, housing and lack of commercial space. Harris believes many newcomers would like to relocate their businesses there, or start a new business, but finding commercial space and housing may be difficult.
Demand for services is also under increasing pressure, including trades such as general contractors and construction workers, electricians and plumbers, framers, mechanics and handymen.
Cascade may begin to assuage some of those concerns with the proposed River District subdivision. The six-phase project will encompass 121 total acres, comprising 135 single-family lots, 43 townhome lots, 52 multifamily lots and nine cottage lots along the Payette River, with 11 acres set aside for commercial ventures, according to Josh Davis. He and dad Phil are the principals of the proposal.
Josh said the multifamily lots could house four- or 16-plex units, and blocks may be set aside for rentals. They plan to offer the first buildable lots by fall 2021. Each phase is planned to run five years.
While no actual projects have yet been defined, about 26 square miles of the tree-covered region above McCall, primarily north of the lake, are under a proposal for a land swap with the state. Trident Holdings wants to buy North Idaho timberland, and then exchange it with the state for the land in Valley County.
The Idaho Department of Lands has a moratorium on land exchanges in the McCall area, and the State of Idaho is looking at long-range plans for the land. Actual numbers and acreages continue to shift, and Trident has yet to purchase the land it intends to swap, so nothing is imminent at this point. Should the exchange eventually materialize, the potential exists for some homes to be built near and around the lake.
What it costs to buy or rent
While home prices are certainly a driving force in the region’s cost of living, other factors temper that somewhat. Based on the national average score of 100, and Idaho’s at 97.7, Donnelly comes in far below either average with an overall score of just 79, according to bestplaces.net. Its average housing costs put it at 59.2, compared with the state at more than 114. Median home prices in this rural community are just under $137,000, while the state’s median is nearly $264,000 and the national median sits at just over $231,000. Groceries, at 93.3, health care, at 92.2 and utilities, at 88.6, all fall below the state and national scores.
Compare this with McCall, with an overall score of 107. Its median home price is a whopping $347,300, putting this score at more than 150. Other costs include groceries, at 95; health care, at just under 93; and utilities, at 87.
Cascade ranks in between, with an overall score of 93.6. While its housing score of nearly 107 approaches McCall’s, its median home cost comes in well below the bigger city’s price at just below $247,000, about $17,000 below the state’s median. Utilities, groceries, and health care costs come in near the low-to-mid 90s.
For vacationers visiting the McCall area, most of the roughly 375 listed vacation rentals virtually surround the 5,330-acre Payette Lake. Vacasa.com lists about 117 of these, with prices generally running from under $100 a night on up. Keep in mind that you’ll pay close to 50% in fees on these rentals, so a unit offered at $578 for a two-night stay, for example, will cost you almost $983 when fees and taxes are applied. On the low end, a one-bedroom unit close to town will run $173 for two nights, but you’ll pay more than the price of a night’s stay in fees, and taxes will set you back another $41 for a total of almost $313.
Airbnb lists similar, but less expensive rental results around the Cascade and Donnelly area, with the bulk of its 300-plus listings sandwiching Lake Cascade. For example, a three-bedroom, strategically located rental home in Cascade lists for $225 for three nights; add fees and taxes to jump the final cost to nearly $350. On the higher end, a two-bed, two-bath cabin in the woods starts off at $175 a night for three nights minimum, but will cost more than $730 in the final tally.
If it’s more of a hotel setting you prefer, while maintaining a mountain flavor, Cascade’s Ashley Inn offers country-style suites running from $182-357 a night. Fireside rooms begin at $169, and cottages at $233. Shore Lodge in McCall offers a variety of rooms, suites and vacation rentals with non-lake-view King suites running from $189 a night and lake-view starting at $229.
More traditional accommodations can be found in the region, ranging from Super 8 in McCall to the Cascade Lake Inn and Donnelly’s Long Valley Motel.
Whatever your interests, from vacations to real estate, expect these mountain communities to continue to draw more interest. As Harris said, “we’re just continuing to go up.”
This piece originally appeared in Heartland Living.