2020 in a Nutshell
Now that December is here, some find themselves like a compass needle, pointing the way to a new year, a fresh start. But the other end of that same needle points to what was, and can navigate us through a reflective mood. The title, 2020 in a nutshell seemed apropos since, well…2020 has been NUTS! This isn’t one of those Auld Lang Syne columns though, as I’ll just be pointing out a few of the highlights as they affected our business and real estate in general in our area.
Build the wall! There was about a one-two week period of total shut down before the official Phase I started. Our town looked to be somewhere between a fairy tale and a dystopian movie set. Dystopia is defined as an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic. The quiet was like that after a snowstorm without the beauty, and the compass I referred to earlier? That needle was spinning out of control as many felt like they were in the cyclone scene of Wizard of Oz, or maybe The Walking Dead (if you’re familiar with the very popular show, it all started with a virus.) We were in unchartered territory. A big part of the shutdown was meant to keep everyone safe and inside their own homes and were told not to venture out to other communities.
We had police checkpoints, and second homeowners got letters pleading with them to stay away. Stay at home. Stay safe. There’s no room here to get into mask debate. There was much to do about something using ‘whatiffin’ politics because everything became political. There was one point, early on when we were told no short-term rentals. (Short-term rentals, referred to as STR are rentals less than 90 days. These rentals are taxed by the state AND county, whereas rentals over 90 days are not taxed. It doesn’t matter if the rentals are inside the town limits or not, all are taxed, and a portion of the 3% tax collected trickles back to the Town of Highlands.) Property managers and private homeowners were asked to register all short-term rental properties with the town.
After STR were allowed again, the floodgates opened. Over the last ten or so years, Thanksgiving week has started to resemble July 4th weekend, but 2020 has almost been that way since May. What a good problem to have. Highlands has become very event-oriented, and the pandemic turned out to be quite an event. Even with most everything canceled, first-time visitors to mountain communities were at an all-time high. One of the remarks we heard many times was, “We just want to look at four different walls.” Especially during the first few months, people were renting homes to shelter-in-place just to be somewhere different. Some brought all their supplies because the media warned of shortages, but most used the carry-out services of our restaurants and bought groceries locally. Our rental process took on a different look as we blocked the day before and after each rental to assure proper cleaning could be done.
Anytime you have this many visitors, you’re going to have people wanting to relocate or retire here, or at least buy a home they can rent out until they can retire here. Real estate sales were at an all-time high as well.
The prejudice against STR has been simmering for years, but the situation has come to a full boil in the last couple of years and with the influx of ‘those people’ during the pandemic, the pressure cooker is about to explode. You would think caution would be in order by HOAs and zoning officials as they impose new restrictions on your property. Remember STRs are considered 90 days or less. Maybe that’s what the majority of property owners want, to be such an exclusive town that the only people here are the ones that ‘belong here’. Does Highlands need to have more hotels to house the visitors? The thing about vacation rental homes is that they are homes, and some people prefer to be in a home rather than a hotel. Many come here annually to make and preserve memories. Some never buy, but their children and grandchildren keep coming and keep making those memories.
When Airbnb became a buzzword and some (not ALL) of the VRBO visitors converged upon our town, it removed the personal element from the STR equation. The problems started when someone could book a place with no personal interaction with a local person. Progress. Our office, like many other property management companies, and some of the private homeowners that offer STRs still maintain a personal interaction.
In a nutshell, I think it is remarkable that as of this column, 28741 has only had one death related to the Coronavirus. Our cases have gone up, and so has the testing, but hospitalizations and deaths are low despite the fact that we’ve had people from every state in the country visit here.