By Julia Arbutus and Rachel Logan

Kimberly Alster first purchased property near Deep Creek Lake in Maryland’s Garrett County 12 years ago. At the time, the idea was to use the home for frequent family vacations. When the pandemic struck, however, the Alsters decided to trade city life for the great outdoors and move permanently. In doing so, families like the Alsters are fueling a housing boom in locations not accustomed to such activity.

Alster, an information technology project manager for a pharmaceuticals company, left Pittsburgh and moved nearly full-time to Deep Creek with her family as the coronavirus crisis was spreading. Then her company closed its Pittsburgh location and she started working entirely remotely. “We came and never left,” she wrote in an email, later adding that the family now spends 80% of their time at the Deep Creek house and plans to sell the Pittsburgh house by the end of the year.

Garrett County, located on Maryland’s western-most point along the border with Pennsylvania, has long lagged the rest of the state in income and population. In 2019, Garrett’s median household income was $52,600 compared to $95,572 for the state overall, according to the U.S. Census.

But as some families migrate away from city centers amid the pandemic and move to more remote locations — a trend that is occurring nationwide — home sales and prices in these once quiet outposts are booming. If the trend continues, economists believe it could trigger a resurgence for communities that have been in decline.

“When more people move in, it becomes more attractive for new businesses to serve them, and the overall tax revenues for the county increase,” said Leonard Arvi, an economics and finance professor at Salisbury University. “It’s a very positive cycle.”

In Garrett, home sales jumped nearly 37% last year while average prices rose 26% to $436,946, according to data from the Maryland Association of Realtors Inc. The trends accelerated during the first quarter of 2021. In March, sales in Garrett were up 71% compared to the previous March, while average prices more than doubled to $567,688. That’s a big turnaround from 2018, when sales in Garrett declined 3.4% and prices slid 8.4%.

Sales didn’t rise nearly as fast last year in the larger suburban counties close to big cities. In Montgomery, one of the state’s wealthiest counties that is located next to Washington, D.C., sales were up 5.4% last year and average prices rose 6.3% to $589,409.

Real estate agents note that prices in counties like Garrett were skewed somewhat because a larger number of higher-end homes sold while inventory of moderate priced homes was low. Nevertheless, they said the change in buying activity has been substantial.

Jon Bell, a real estate agent with Railey Realty in Garrett County said Deep Creek has become more “lively” since the boom. “Businesses are making more money than ever,” he said, as more homeowners spend big on boat rentals, movies and restaurant meals. The spending has spurred hiring.

Other rural counties are seeing similar trends, including Talbot, Kent and
Dorchester, all on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an area that has suffered in recent decades from the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Bill Ingersoll, the city manager of Chestertown, a college town in Kent County, said the area is already feeling the effects of the housing boom. He said there had been just two or fewer requests in Chestertown to build new homes in the past six years. But in 2020, there were five single family homes built, plus one duplex and two triplexes, for a total of 13 new homes.

High home values and the addition of new homes could reverse some of the negative impact from declining values that occurred after the 2007-2009 recession.

“A housing market like the one we are in now has the impact, at least over time, of raising assessments of property — which have really been lower since the Great Recession — as properties sell for higher amounts across the town,” Ingersoll said.

That, in turn, could boost the economy. “This increase in housing construction and improvement will lead to growth in the economy, employment and tax revenue,” said Zifeng Feng, a finance professor at Frostburg State University.

Real estate agents note that the counties benefiting the most from the change in movement have plenty of outdoor attractions and are within a three-hour drive from Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and Pittsburgh.

Garrett County’s Deep Creek Lake community is a popular vacation destination featuring skiing in the winter and kayaking, rafting and other lake activities in the summer. Talbot and Kent counties are located close to Ocean City, Maryland, a popular beach location that accommodates eight million visitors each year.

Even before the pandemic, Garrett County was gearing up to be a telecommuting hub.

“Most of our areas have high speed internet…we have the infrastructure for people to telecommute,” Bell said. “But we just never saw them do it until recently.”

The main draw to Deep Creek, Bell said, is that residents can naturally socially distance because the area isn’t crowded and houses are on larger lots than you would typically find in suburban or urban areas. “I jokingly say that you can sneeze as hard as you want to from the deck and you’re not gonna affect your neighbors,” he said.

One of the biggest problems in Garrett and similar counties is lack of inventory. “We have such a demand that the supply is not keeping up,” said Dee Dee Miller, the president of the Maryland Association of Realtors. “It’s been the most robust early spring market that we’ve seen in years.”

But rising prices are hurting some existing residents. Coard Benson, a real estate agent at Benson and Mangold Real Estate in Talbot County, said some older homeowners who want to sell their homes to downsize but cannot find smaller, more affordable homes to purchase due to the lack of supply. Inventory in Talbot County has fallen from 6.2 months of supply in 2020 to 1.5 months supply this year. (Months of supply measures how many months it would take for the current inventory of homes on the market to sell. Six months of supply is considered a balanced market.)

Miller believes that the market will begin to balance itself once the federal moratorium on evictions is lifted in June and supply reenters the market.