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‘People are buying houses left and right’: More people are moving to Vermont amid the pandemic

Adam Davidson and Jen Branbury with their border collie, Feather, at home in Charlotte, Vt.
Adam Davidson and Jen Branbury with their border collie, Feather, at home in Charlotte, Vt.Caleb Kenna For The Boston Globe

CHARLOTTE, Vt. — Jen Banbury and Adam Davidson still ask themselves whether their new life is real: a two-story stone house from 1820 they bought last year, 30 acres of farmland in this small town on Lake Champlain, their first vegetable garden.

Quite a change from the small apartment they shared in Brooklyn, N.Y., with their son, now 9 years old. Quite a change from the days before COVID-19 scrambled plans and expectations and moved some people to places they thought they’d never be.

“Oh my God, this is beautiful,” said Banbury, a playwright, author, and journalist who covered post-invasion Iraq with Davidson, her husband. “We’ve gone from being sad and depressed about the world to waking up and feeling good again.”

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They have plenty of company. The pandemic spurred as many as 5,000 additional people to spend last summer in Vermont, according to a state estimate, many of them seeking refuge from hot spots and urban congestion that made them more susceptible to the virus.

Now, many want to stay permanently, a survey shows. For a state whose population grew by only 387 residents over the five years ending in 2017, even a few thousand new arrivals would qualify as a surge.

“It’s a great thing,” said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the state Department of Financial Regulation, which tracks the state’s pandemic response. “Vermont has had a stagnant or even a declining population for a number of years.”

In 2019, Vermont counted 55,000 fewer people under the age of 45 than it had in 2000, and 44,000 more people over 65, according to the Center for Research on Vermont, part of the University of Vermont.

Adam Davidson and Jen Banbury walk with their border collie, Feather, in Charlotte, Vt.
Adam Davidson and Jen Banbury walk with their border collie, Feather, in Charlotte, Vt.Caleb Kenna For The Boston Globe

Vermont also has the lowest birth rate in the country, and the median age of its 624,000 residents is the third oldest, behind only Maine and New Hampshire.

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Now, business is booming for real estate agents, banks, title companies, and others with links to the housing industry. From 2019 to 2020, residential sales in Vermont to out-of-state buyers jumped from $799 million to $1.43 billion, a 79 percent increase, state officials said. Additionally, the number of out-of-state buyers increased by 38 percent, to 3,795 from 2,750.

“Are those people getting a second home? Are they getting a getaway home if something else happens? It’s certainly clear that the real estate market has been very busy,” Pieciak said.

As last spring stretched into summer, Vermonters began noticing the new interest from out-of-state home buyers and renters. But estimates of their numbers and staying power were mainly anecdotal.

However, a survey conducted last year by a partnership involving the University of Vermont and the Vermont Futures Project, an economic study group, sought to quantify the trend by reaching out to new arrivals through sources such as realtors, chambers of commerce, state agencies, and social media.

One-third of the 226 respondents, all of whom had moved to Vermont during the pandemic, said they were likely to stay after life seems normal again.

Nearly three-quarters said they had come to Vermont primarily because of COVID-19, and they cited Vermont’s handling of the pandemic as a big draw. The state has the country’s second-lowest per-capita rates of COVID infections and deaths, and about half the respondents said their employers had allowed them to work remotely.

“One of the signature things” the survey found “is that more people are comfortable teleworking and more companies are allowing it,” said Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont.

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That arrangement allowed Charlotte Cerf, 32, to move to the Burlington suburbs with her fiance from a 600-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. Now, they live off a dirt road in Hinesburg with plenty of space and a view of the Green Mountains.

“If it wasn’t for COVID, we would still be living in New York,” said Cerf, who works in human resources. “Being physically in Vermont for months on end, we realized that despite all the horrible things going on in the world, we felt more relaxed and happier and didn’t miss the stress of living in New York City.”

They also have easy access to the outdoors, and they enjoy the cultural and culinary options in nearby Burlington.

“It just exposed us to a different way of living,” Cerf said. “Entrenched in New York City, it was difficult to envision living anywhere else. Now, I can’t believe that this is our life.”

The lure of Vermont, however, has had a major effect on housing. As prices rise and stock dries up, obstacles are mounting for young residents who wish to stay in a state that has been watching them leave for decades.

“Almost all the inventory is bought up,” Pieciak said. “If you’re a Vermonter trying to find your first house, it just became a lot more difficult. Even trying to stay in Vermont and renting, your rent is going up.”

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David Ostmann can relate. A sales director who moved from Wisconsin last month with his wife and two small children, Ostmann was startled that not even the generous budget he set aside would allow him to break into the market.

“It was about as easy as putting socks on a chicken. It was awful,” Ostmann said. “We were trying to uncover every stone we could possibly find. There wasn’t a house to be had.”

The competition for homes was fierce, featuring cash offers, bidding far above asking price, and even waivers of home inspections, he said. That dynamic, more familiar in big cities, might be aggravating tension between some longtime Vermonters and more affluent newcomers.

“People are buying houses left and right around the state,” Tommy Thompson said as he left the Spear Corner Store in Charlotte. “When the flatlanders started coming up here in the ‘70s, it all went downhill. The first thing they want to do is change everything.”

Watts, director of the Vermont research center, said he doesn’t believe that perception is widespread. Half of Vermont residents were born elsewhere, he said.

“We wouldn’t be the state we are without that huge influx of people,” said Watts, referencing a 50 percent increase in Vermont’s population between 1960 and 2000. “Change is always hard, but in general we have to grow.”

Lori Smith, executive director of the Vermont Futures Project, which helped organize the survey of new arrivals, said the effect of the influx — and even whether people stay — will take time to determine.

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“We know that people have moved here, but what the end result is, the jury’s out,” Smith said. “Being able to live here and prosper here and thrive here is key, and that’s where the work needs to be done.”

For Davidson and Banbury, the Brooklynites-turned-Vermonters, they and their son, Ash, are thriving in the Champlain Valley.

“This truly feels like my home. It feels pretty natural,” said Davidson, whose wide-ranging journalism and media career has taken him around the globe.

Davidson is proving anew that one’s workplace need not be different from one’s living space. Along the way, this self-described “city kid” is becoming adept at starting and stoking fires in a pit on his patio.

“You would think a change like this would take some time to absorb, but it didn’t,” Davidson said. “Now, I’m not even open to job opportunities that would involve leaving.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.