In several ways, there has never been a year like this for the Washington State real estate market, briefly shut down by Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Safe edict in the spring meant to tackle the emerging spread of the new coronavirus.
2020 has been chaotic. By March, according to a survey by Washington Realtors, a statewide industry group, home buyer interest had decreased by half statewide due to the coronavirus outbreak. Offices were shuttered, with all work to be performed electronically and remotely. Before they were eased, the constraints had put more than 17,000 pending transactions including sales contracts and purchase agreements at risk of forfeiture before agents and clients had finalized and closed them.
But after pressure came from industry representatives, limitations on conducting business in person, including for showings and inspections, were soon revised and loosened provided proper social distance could be maintained. Agents and buyers took the appropriate precautions, wearing masks, monitoring their temperatures, driving to listings in different cars, with some even signing affidavits affirming that they were not exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. But it was not clear what impact the virus would have on the market in most forecasts of the state’s potential home sales.
Through Nov. 30 of this year, a total of 162 homes have been sold on the island according to data provided by Windermere Vashon, down from 186 in 2019, though the median sale price rose by 14% over last year to $689,500.
Ken Zaglin, the owner of Vashon’s John L. Scott office, said that normally in the spring, the home buying market usually becomes more active, picking up again during the fall. Everything stopped on Vashon following the stay-at-home order, though not for long.
“When COVID hit, and we closed the office down almost immediately as the ruling came, it was dead silent. You just didn’t know how the market would respond,” he said in a recent interview. “But very shortly thereafter, by May and June, the demand — buyers were just calling to see anything and everything that was listed and every property, the second it hit the market, had numerous buyers wanting to see it.”
At that time, the island’s small inventory of housing saw a huge rise in demand, with many buyers newly able to work from home, motivated by low interest rates and choosing to abandon more crowded suburbs and the city for space to expand.
But there was a marked change in who was looking for a Vashon home, said Zaglin.
The pandemic market was the most difficult for buyers unable to make all-cash offers or higher down payments, such as working families, fully financed and qualified but struggling to compete, he said. And while the upper-end home market of Vashon, priced at or above $1 million, is traditionally slower overall compared to home sales at the lower end below that price point, it was invigorated this summer.
“What we experienced is an even stronger market in the upper end than we ever had,” Zaglin said. “You now had people who were tied to their offices before, who worked at Amazon or Microsoft or any number of high-end firms, who now didn’t need to go into their office. They could work from anywhere that had a good internet connection.”
Zaglin said he does not expect the frenzy to continue indefinitely, at least for Vashon, specifically in the upper-end market, though he added it is likely that the island will still have more buyers than properties for sale in the future.
Even with all the seeming volatility in the market now, according to The Seattle Times, home prices in Seattle have continued to increase exponentially, ranking as the second-fastest growth in the country, while the region continues to attract as many people as ever, all of whom are eager to live in Puget Sound. And with that pattern, the story on Vashon this year has followed closely, with reports of numerous offers and bidding wars over many of the properties available on the island, and more sales of island homes over $1 million than in recent memory. Windermere owner Beth de Groen said it was the most she had seen at any time since beginning her career.
She noted that Vashon’s high-priced home sales this year show the damage caused by the pandemic, allowing those who went unaffected to move while others, such as working families, lost their jobs and a lot of their savings.
“It’s so depressing that those at the lower end are just being crushed by this whole situation,” she said. “Nobody who is lower end has, for the most part, been buying a house. It’s very weird, that part of it because usually, we sell all ranges, and this year we’ve been really dominant in the high end.”
De Groen said that median home values on the island rose dramatically in 2017 when Vashon’s real estate market was last at its peak. It has been a busy past few years. While there were hardly any sales for properties under $450,000 this year, steady sales ranged from $550,000 to $750,000, with some seeking Vashon motivated by jobs moving online and changing attitudes toward living in Seattle, she said. Echoing Zaglin, she also said that the listings were coming and going quickly, both on Vashon and across the area, a pattern that Agent Aaron Hendon of Seattle-based Christine & Company said from his perspective appeared to be true for much of King County, with demand elsewhere up slightly and supply down enormously.
For the island, he said, while some buyers today might be able to borrow more at low interest rates, the situation has changed significantly in just the last few years.
“Where most of the homes now fall is between five and $750,000, is the bulk of the homes,” he said. “Now, you’re not finding anything, you know, very little starting with a four, and nothing less than three. And that wasn’t the case four years ago.”
The circumstances have not been kind to island tenants either, some with their own dreams of owning property on Vashon. Islander Therese Henning, who operates The Healing Tree Massage Clinic in West Seattle, was about to sell another business and use the proceeds to buy the home she rented on Vashon when the pandemic broke out. Suddenly, nobody wanted to buy a massage company. Then her landlord told her that the house had to be put up for sale.
A friend soon sent her a Craigslist ad for The Burton Inn, which had been mostly empty since 2018 just outside Quartermaster Harbor, waiting for someone to breathe new life into the property. The owner already had a cash bid on the table, Henning said, but agreed to a two-year lease with Henning to purchase the property. She and her family moved into the innkeepers’ quarters next door and began making improvements, later unveiling freshly renovated rooms and a full-service spa, boldly opening their doors and donning masks and face shields as the pandemic put tremendous pressure on small businesses everywhere.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t know I was going to own an inn,” Henning said. “But now it’s like, the place is so magical and I just love it. And it’s like, okay, this is what I was meant to do.”
Opening this October, later plans for the inn include launching an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to support the further refurbishment of the spa, kitchen and rooms, building performance venues and meditation facilities, and hosting an outdoor food truck event beginning next spring.
Henning recommends anyone looking to one day own a home on the island or start a business here try to stay positive and patient for better days to come, though she acknowledged that nothing so far has come easy due to the pandemic. On Friday, Seattle & King County Public Health Official Dr. Jeff Duchin told members of the media about the acceleration of outbreaks across the county even as a small number of doses of the vaccine have become available to inoculate health care workers.
“This has been a terribly difficult year in so many ways,” he said, adding that the promise of a vaccine has the potential to begin a gradual recovery from the national nightmare of COVID-19. “But even with highly effective vaccines on the horizon, we’re not close to out of the woods and the COVID-19 wildfire continues to consume and disrupt too many human lives.”