By Erin Petenko/VTDigger and Polly Mikula
Results from the 2020 census have revealed the deep impact of Vermont’s shifting population. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Chittenden County gained more people than any other part of the state. But another, perhaps less predicable, trend has also emerged: Ski communities, and areas popular with tourists and seasonal homeowners, had a mini boom in their resident population, with some reporting increases 10 times higher than the state average.
The communities that gained the most people as a percentage of their population included Killington, Stratton, Dover, Winhall and Marlboro. All but Marlboro is a ski destination.
But, in an unprecedented year for census data-gathering, it’s hard to say how much of that boom was due to genuine, long-lasting population growth and how much due to a quirk of timing.
Most Vermonters filled out their census forms in April 2020, the middle of mud season. Census workers knocked on doors throughout the summer of 2020 to reach homes where people had not responded.
To show just how much the pandemic has affected population trends, VTDigger compared actual census 2020 counts with the population estimates compiled prior to the pandemic based on births, deaths and migrations.
In Killington, the census estimated the population would be 751. Instead, it was 1,407, almost double the expected number.
Once again, many of the communities that had greater-than-expected population totals were ski destinations or well-known areas for seasonal homeowners, vacationers and tourists, particularly in southern Vermont.
Mike Moser, head of the Vermont State Data Center at the University of Vermont, said it’s likely that seasonal residents who are not normally here were “hiding out” in Vermont and marking it as their usual residence.
But it is also noteworthy that ski areas also closed in March 2020, due to Covid and did not reopen that spring.
“Where those people are now is the big question everyone is asking,” he said via email. “How many people went back home? How many people will stay here? How many more will continue to come here?”
There’s some other data pointing to more permanent shifts during the pandemic. Home sales to out-of-state buyers rose in 2020, and some ski towns, including Killington, Stowe, Dover and Ludlow, reported a rise in those types of sales in 2020.
Some school populations have also increased. Locally, Killington Elementary had to add another pre-K classroom and Woodstock Elementary had to add two more classes to accommodate growing student enrollment.
Nathan R. Mastroeni, MBA, Sotheby’s regional manager of offices in Rutland, Stowe, Middlebury and Burlington, with about 50 real estate agents combined, said the pandemic only exacerbated trends of low vacancies and rising demand he had seen in the years before the pandemic.
“Most markets in Vermont “had been seeing a slow steady increase building up to what was really already a strong market in 2019,” Mastroeni said. “Then the pandemic put the market in overdrive. And this is how it’s been for the past year even though prices have increased the demand is still very high.”
“This past year was basically the best year ever,” he added.
KC Chambers, a Realtor® for Red Barn Realty in Stowe, echoed that sentiment: “The pandemic really just threw gas on the fire,” he said.
Mastroeni and Chambers agreed that the higher-than-expected numbers could be tied to second-home owners who would normally be here on weekends, or visit in ski season, choosing to live in Vermont full-time.
There’s a tendency for out-of-staters moving to Vermont to seek out touristy areas, Chambers said. “[They’re] used to a certain number of services and restaurants and that sort of thing,” he said. “That’s why having a place in Stowe, versus some other non-tourist area that doesn’t have those services, is appealing to them.”
“More people want to move because they can work remotely,” Mastroeni said. “People want to live where they play. A lot of people have just said, ‘Hey let’s do it!’ If there’s a decent internet connection, I can live there’,” Mastroeni said of the importance of broadband connectivity.
Lifestyle generally, and outdoor activities specifically, are the main reasons Mastroeni says people seek homes in Vermont.
“Recreation is the biggest driver,” he said.
In Rutland County, total real estate saw a decrease in inventory of nearly 10% in new listings in 2020 (from 1,207 to 1,092) but an increase of 15% in listings sold (from 851 to 975). The average sold price rose 23% (from $198,033 to $245,219).
One of the tradeoffs of having an influx of new migrants, or having people no longer renting out their seasonal home, is the difficulty of full-time residents to find apartments.
“It’s impossible to find a year-round rental,” Chambers said. “I have clients who are trying to do it, and I basically give them some tips and tell them I’ll keep my eyes out for them.”
But that was true even before the pandemic. “Airbnb came along and just made it so easy for people to rent their house” short term, he said, although a handful of landlords actually switched from Airbnb to renting because of Covid-19 concerns.
Mastroeni added that rentability on short-term platforms also added a level of security for homebuyers. “They specifically want to be close to a resort because of the rentability,” he explained. “They know they can rent it on AirBnb or VRBO when they’re not using it to help defray costs. Even if it’s just a little, like paying for the taxes on it, it can make a big difference,” he said.
Asked if he believes these new Vermonters are here to stay, Chambers said, “My crystal ball is just as cloudy as everyone else’s.”
Moser said it’s likely we won’t get a full picture of the pandemic’s impacts on population for years, particularly because other census data products are likely to be affected by more pandemic quirks.
One thing is clear. Between April 2020 and now, the real-estate market has only gotten hotter.
“It’s crazy to say but, I mean, prices were escalating in real estate where people who bought houses in Stowe last summer could make money on them this summer,” Chambers said. “The market’s really accelerated.”