By Danielle Hyams, and Jade Stepeney
James, 32, and his wife, left their apartment in New York City at the height of COVID-19, decamping for a relative’s vacant house in Big Sky, Montana. One month later, they became first-time homeowners, purchasing a three-bedroom townhouse in Moonlight Basin development. The decision, James said, was easy.
“I personally had never really seen unadulterated, dramatic nature like this before, and for that to be in your backyard and accessible in minutes, but at the same time have a community right down the road,” he said, asking us to only use his first name. “The town is forming in front of our eyes. It’s a little bit scary, because you don’t want the one-lane town to be overrun with people, but it’s exciting to be part of it.”
James isn’t alone in his thinking — Big Sky, Montana, has been becoming an increasingly popular destination for second home owners in recent years. The city topped Vacasa’s list of best places to buy a winter vacation home for 2020-2021.
This can be attributed to several factors, said Ania Bulis, vice president of sales and founding broker at The Big Sky Real Estate Co. There has been a significant boost in advertising done on a more collective scale between some of the bigger entities in the city. Plus, she said, the increasingly widespread and deadly forest fires that plague the West Coast are driving people into the Rockies as they search for vacation homes. But nothing could have prepared Big Sky for the influx of people who decided to relocate there amid the pandemic.
“It’s amazing the number of friends we’ve made who were here in March who are from New York or LA or Boston who after several months of being here during COVID, gave up their places and are making a permanent move,” said Bayard Dominick, vice president at Lone Mountain Land Company. “The quarantine lifestyle in Montana is pretty good because you can get outside and really enjoy it, hiking and biking and getting out on the trails and rivers and have plenty of social distance. People are just getting to know it because they are here.”
Unlike other resort towns, Big Sky isn’t sleepy.
“The demographic seemed pretty unparalleled — we went to Sun Valley for a weekend over the summer and it kind of felt like a retirement community versus something with a lot more life to it,” James said.
2020 was a banner year for Big Sky real estate, said Sandy Revisky, a broker and realtor at PureWest Big Sky, Christie’s International Real Estate. “The market was very strong pre-COVID, but has become even stronger since the pandemic.” she said.
According to PureWest Big Sky, Christie’s International Real Estate’s 2020 Annual Market Report, property sales were stable from 2016 to 2019 with an average of 368 units sold. Compare that to the 535 units sold last year alone. You can see why Bulis refers to the current state of inventory as “skinny.”
Since properties are flying off the market, you may have already guessed that securing one is hard. Revisky can confirm. “Inventory’s at the lowest point that I’ve ever experienced in my 21 year career as a Broker in Big Sky.” she said. 2020 only saw 183 active listings, compared to 434 in 2016.
“When we were looking in July they had already sold two of the thirty units in this development,” James said. “Now there is nothing. We were lucky that we had the thought when we did.”
Even as buyers are on standby for fresh listings, Revisky said that sellers aren’t budging. “Many have truly discovered how amazing it is to own property in Big Sky,” she said. But the hesitance to sell may be driven by anticipation of what’s to come. “The hardest part of being a seller right now is probably fear that you should hold on to the property longer in order to sell when the market is even higher.”
Those who are selling, Bulis said, see an opportunity in the marketplace and are willing to part with their property, but only at a very specific and elevated price point.
Because people aren’t in a rush to leave, newer residents are taking advantage of Big Sky’s growth through entrepreneurship.
It might sound crazy to open a restaurant mid-pandemic when many businesses are struggling, but Campbell Schnebly, co-owner and general manager of ACRE kitchen in Big Sky did just that, alongside her fiancé and friends this past December. The restaurant focuses on locally sourced dishes that remind them of New York City, which is where they relocated from.
“When we first opened we didn’t expect it to be as busy as it was,” she said. “It’s the opposite to what I think a lot of small businesses across the country are experiencing.”
While this has all been a boon for restaurants, hotels and of course, sellers, it’s pricing out a certain demographic.
“It makes it so much less affordable for people to buy into this market that are trying to establish themselves here, have a family, start a business, so where we are really seeing the biggest negative impact is it’s pricing some of the locals out of the market,” Bulis said.
But, she added, said Big Sky is uniquely positioned to create affordable housing, as it’s still a “town coming out of the ground.”
Big Sky’s gross sales volume in 2020 was $725,958,370, almost a 50% spike from 2019. The median sales price was $850,000 across five neighborhoods, with condos and townhomes being the hottest sellers.
Want to buy property in Big Sky but feel discouraged? Revisky has some words of encouragement for buyers having trouble finding a property. “Don’t give up!” she said. “More properties come on the market every day.” Just be ready to act quickly, even purchasing sight unseen. Alternatively, Bulis suggests buying whatever you can to get a foothold in Big Sky and then upgrading once you’re living there. After all, the views are worth it.