Julie Dawson Williams, chief operating officer of Bangor real estate agency ERA Dawson Bradford, said that since March her agents have seen an increase in people from out of state looking for primary residence in Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Having lived under some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country and the restrictions that have come with it, some residents of cities including New York, Boston and Detroit want to find a new place to live — one that’s cheaper and less densely populated, with lower virus counts. A place like Maine.

Real estate agents in eastern Maine say they’re seeing growing interest from clients looking to relocate to the area from some of those coronavirus hot spots. It’s a move that could become easier as more of their jobs move to telecommuting full time.

“We are seeing interest in the Bangor market outside of the typical relocation for work,” said Julie Dawson Williams, owner of Bangor real estate agency ERA Dawson Bradford. “There are some people that can make a choice now about where to live, because now they can work remotely, and the idea of living in an urban setting no longer seems appealing. It’s something we saw occasionally before, but now it’s becoming a bit of a trend.”

There have been other examples of a general rise in interest in getting out of urban areas and into rural areas, such as the back to the land movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Maine, or the fallout from other traumatic events such as the Sept. 11 attacks. The pandemic has altered so many facets of life for so many people that the country could be primed for another surge in relocations to rural areas — one that won’t happen overnight, but may unfold over the coming years.

“We saw that after Sept. 11, and we’re seeing that now, again,” said Angelia Levesque, regional vice president for the Bangor region for Better Homes & Gardens The Masiello Group. “It’s not quite to the extent that it was back then, but it’s absolutely happening. I think people just don’t want to be stuck in that apartment anymore. They want a little land. They want that freedom.”

Both Levesque and Williams said most of the interest is coming from people in the eastern U.S., specifically New York, New Jersey, Boston, Detroit and parts of Florida. In many cases, those people have some form of connection to the state, whether it’s a direct connection such as having grown up in Maine or having relatives here, or a more indirect one such as having been on a vacation to the state once or twice.

The second-home market still remains strong, too, according to Steve Shelton, who owns Ellsworth-based Acadia Realty Group. He tends to see buyers more interested in having an auxiliary home in Maine, rather than a primary residence.

“We’re seeing folks that now very much want to have an escape spot, so if they want to get out of the city, they can come and stay for a few weeks,” Shelton said. “That has always been true, but it’s definitely even busier now.”

Nevertheless, the primary home market in Maine could be in for a similar kind of upswing, though most realtors agreed that it was too early to see interest in the area translate into sales, given that the state has only recently opened itself up to visitors who have tested negative for the coronavirus. If people are no longer required to physically come into and work at a specific office on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis, that means that they aren’t necessarily tethered anymore to one city or state. Why live in an expensive apartment in New York when you could live in Maine and spend a much smaller fraction of your income on housing for more space and land?

One thing that could help convince more out-of-staters to consider relocating to Maine would be more widespread availability of high-speed internet, Williams said. According to the website broadbandnow.com, Maine ranks 43 out of 50 states in terms of broadband access. Just 5.7 percent of Mainers have access to fiber optic service, and the average internet speed in Maine is 21.2 megabytes per second. In New Jersey, 67 percent of residents have access to fiber optic, and their average speed is 52 mbps.

“The fact that we may end up seeing the rise of telecommuting being a permanent change in how people work may end up being something we as a state can capitalize on,” Williams said. “I think a big part of that will be making sure we invest in broadband connectivity on a meaningful level in the state, however.”

Though it’s too early to say if this initial trend in increased interest in moving to Maine and to other more rural states will become a full-fledged urban exodus, it is nevertheless an opportunity that Maine could seize on. As one of the oldest states in the country, the state’s ability to attract younger people to move here is a key part of combating that demographic challenge.

“I think the pandemic has maybe caused people to really rethink what it is they want for their overall lifestyle,” Williams said. “We talk about the brain drain in Maine all the time, so the fact that people are now starting to be freed from some of the things that brought them to cities in general may end up working to our advantage.”

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.