Aroostook County has the state’s lowest home prices, something that helped more than 500 home buyers last year, as home sales in The County increased almost 20 percent.
Home sales across the state increased more than 11 percent last year, and the median price grew almost 5 percent to $189,400, according to the Maine Realtors Association’s annual report.
With low interest rates for home buyers and in some places an abundance of homes for sale, many counties saw double digit increases in housing sales last year, although prices in rural counties increased at a smaller rate or not at all.
Franklin County saw the largest jump in the number of homes sold — 25 percent more — in tandem with median sales prices growing less than three percent to $125,625, according to the report.
Housing prices kept climbing in southern and midcoast areas, with median sales prices of $265,000 in Cumberland County, $239,000 in York County, $212,000 in Knox County and $210,000 in Lincoln County. The number of home sales also increased more than 18 percent in Androscoggin County and 20 percent in Penobscot County, with median sales prices increasing to $146,700 and $133,000 respectively.
Aroostook, Piscatiquis and Washington counties were the only ones in the state with median prices of less than $100,000, although each saw a double digit bump in sales last year.
Home sales in Aroostook County increased by almost 20 percent last year, with 563 units sold, according to the report. The median sales price fell by 5 percent and remains the lowest in the state at $82,500, followed by Piscatiquis at $85,000.
Despite the price drop, 2016 was good for local real estate businesses, said Jane Towle, a real estate agent with REMAX in Presque Isle.
As someone in the business of selling homes, Towle said, “We like to see one or the other rise. When we see both price and sales rise, that means growth.”
Aroostook County’s numbers “mean’s there’s not significant pressure” on prices, and that’s a benefit for homebuyers, Towle said. “Stability is good.”
“Caribou and Presque Isle are the two communities that drive a lot of the sales numbers, and there are a great variety of people buying homes in Aroostook County,” Towle said.
Among them are employees of large companies like The Aroostook Medical Center and Cary Medical Center, first-time home buyers who have spent years renting, people moving back to the region and some retirees. “Some people really love four seasons,” Towle said.
Last year also was a fairly good year for some commercial real estate areas, such as around downtown Presque Isle, where a number of vacant storefronts and buildings have found tenants, including the new Allegro Coffee shop and used car dealer. “Commercial real estate is having a bit of bounce back from the 2012 era,” Towle said. “Those were dismal years in commercial. I hope it continues.”
There are definitely challenges for home buyers, home sellers and real estate businesses in Aroostook County and rural Maine. Aroostook County has a 33 percent vacancy rate, compared to the statewide average of 29 percent. (The highest housing vacancy rate in the state is in Piscataquis County, with a 57 percent rate.)
And while there may be a lot of homes on the market, buyers have to exercise due diligence in assessing the condition of often older homes in northern Maine. Some may have problems from being unheated in winters, while others may have third-hand smoke damage from years of indoor cigarette smoking, which can be difficult to eradicate. Those who want to build a new home, even on affordable land, also face a host of obstacles in getting a bank loan.
“The housing stock is aging, there’s no question about that,” Towle said. At the same time, “the cost of construction over the past 10 years has become very expensive. People are far more likely to maybe buy a home that needs some repairs, and they can restore it, compared to starting from scratch.”
“Homes with good bones and good systems, a lot can be done,” Towle said. “There is a lot of creative financing out there. With good credit, know how and some money down, banks are willing to take a look at some projects.”
Some new homes have been built in recent years, including townhomes at the Franklin Place subdivision, the site of Presque Isle’s former Cunningham Middle School, as well as condominiums on Oak Street. Some of the Oak Street units sold for $138,000, while the Franklin Place units were listed at $199,000.
Homes in rural communities can linger on the market, with the average days listed being 178 in Aroostook County, according to Towle.
“Some are priced aggressively and sell in two days, some [are on the market] for two years,” she said. “Homes linger on the market due to location and price. Every home will sell at the right price. If a home is priced right, it’s going to sell.”