LENOX — What’s missing from the rapidly greening Berkshire landscape? Daffodils, tulips, cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, pear trees, dogwoods and forsythia abound.
But, the usual, easily spotted “for sale” signs in front of homes are few, even though springtime is normally high season in the real estate market. That’s because “inventory,” as the brokers call it, is at near-record lows and the mostly expensive homes that are listed are being snapped up, often at or above the asking price.
The county’s Board of Realtors states that only about 300 houses are on the market throughout the Berkshires, compared with the typical 800 at this time of year, pre-pandemic. In Pittsfield, only 40 active listings are available, apparently an all-time low.
Is Berkshire County seeing a population explosion, fueled by remote work, that is likely to be a permanent aftereffect of COVID-19? Are urbanites and suburbanites from the New York and Boston areas flocking to the countryside in search of more space and a relatively carefree lifestyle? Is there evidence that second-home owners are settling in for year-round residency?
All of the above appears to be valid, at least based on evidence that has garnered national media attention for the region.
“The pandemic has given us a kind of catalyst event that has worked to our favor in terms of people looking to the Berkshires,” according to Jonathan Butler, head of 1Berkshire, the county’s economic development agency. “Certainly, it’s a more comfortable place after living through a pandemic experience in an urban center.”
County and town-by-town population data from the 2020 U.S. census, to be released in August, won’t reflect recent trends, since it’s based on where people were living on April 1 last year, just as the full impact of the coronavirus was emerging.
Whether widespread working from home becomes a permanent feature of the employment landscape remains to be seen.
“There is value in new wealth coming into the region,” Butler points out. “We’ll be paying close attention to how that trickles into our economy, what sectors benefit the most from that. But all in all, I think we’re cautious and aware that there will be some things that need to be addressed because of this. Overall, we’re really optimistic about what the longer-term ramifications might be.”
As reported last month, U.S. Postal Service data based on change-of-address forms indicates that, for the first time in 50 years, Berkshire County’s ongoing population loss may have shifted into reverse.
The USPS survey revealed that in 2020, compared with 2019, the Pittsfield metro area (representing the entire county) had the sixth-highest number of new residents among 926 metros. As Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said: “A lot of New Yorkers have been coming to the Berkshires for years. They’re familiar with the area and comfortable coming up here.”
A New York Times analysis found an unusually large exodus of people from major urban areas like New York and Boston. That meant population gains for vacation destinations like the Berkshires, northwest Connecticut, New York’s Hudson Valley, the Catskills, Cape Cod and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
After a Berkshire County population decline of 1.4 percent in 2019, the pendulum swung to a 2.5 percent increase last year, an impressive net gain of nearly 4 percent. Six of the seven regions with the highest positive shifts were in the Northeast. The Hudson and Kingston, N.Y., areas are ranked first and second, followed by Torrington, Conn., in third place. Barnstable (Cape Cod) is ranked fourth, Pittsfield sixth and Lebanon, N.H., seventh.
With demand far exceeding supply for single-family homes here, prices have soared, leading to a 21 percent increase last year per the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, and an eye-popping 32 percent from October to December 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to the National Association of Realtors. That’s the second-largest increase in all 926 U.S. metro areas for that time frame.
The sales price surge shows no signs of slackening, with a nearly 27 percent gain in March of this year for Berkshire County, compared with March 2020. The Warren Group, data crunchers for the entire state, calls that the second-highest increase among the 14 counties of Massachusetts.
“I’ve heard that folks are paying over the asking price [for single-family homes] in many instances, and that indicates demand, Matuszko said. “It would make sense that it corresponds to information from this study.”
These studies, backing up anecdotes many of us have heard, help bolster the trend, thanks to national publicity.
In USA Today, for example, Pittsfield was listed among five areas gaining from the remote work focus: “The vibrant art community in the heart of the Berkshires has lots of green space. It’s at the 53 percentile in affordability and 90.2 percentile in quality of life.” The other communities cited include Ithaca, N.Y., Port St. Lucie, Fla., Daphne, Ala., and Eugene, Ore.
You won’t be surprised to find that I, among many others, have identified a downside to all this apparent good news. For Berkshire families seeking starter homes, as well as others with middle incomes hoping to move into the area, the pickings are slim.
Next weekend in this space: A deep dive into the whys and wherefores of developing housing that’s affordable for the vast majority of locals and newcomers.
Information from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, USA Today and Spectrum News was included in this commentary.