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Want to buy a house on Cape Cod? Better hurry!

The Cape’s housing inventory has hit a historic low. In March, 149 houses were for sale under $1 million. Two years ago, that number topped 1,000.

The Cape’s housing inventory has hit a historic low.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

What you are about to read will make no sense. Unless, that is, you are one of the tortured souls trying to buy a home on the Cape — where inventory is so low that bidders are disappointed when they lose out on properties they don’t even like.

When Becky Carvalho and her husband went to see yet another house — in this case, a three-bed, two-bath Cape in Harwich, listed at $499,000 — they were delighted with the home’s most repellent features: it was so close to Route 6 they could hear the traffic from the back yard; the beach was a schlep; and, perhaps best of all, the owner smoked and the place stunk.

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After taking it all in, the couple, who have been living in a too-small rental and looking to buy for nearly two years, were giddy. “We thought that would scare people off,” said Carvalho, who runs her family’s nursery in Brewster.

Alas, it didn’t. Their bid, which included an escalation clause saying they’d go as high as $575,000, was not the winner.

If only the wall-to-wall carpet had been soaked in urine …

Inventory on the Cape was tightening even before the pandemic, but now it has dropped to “historic lows,” said Ryan Castle, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors.

In March, there were only 149 homes for sale on the Cape for under $1 million — down from 1,045 in March 2020, Castle said.

In the over $1 million category, there were 303 houses in March of this year, down from 1,544 in 2020, according to Castle.

Housing is so tight — and so pricey — that people fear that it will change the very character of the Cape, with nowhere for workers to live, no modest homes for retirees, no more beloved low-key vibe.

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“You don’t want it turning into the Hamptons,” said Annie Blatz, the immediate past president of the realtors association.

The squeeze is so pronounced that it’s tightening the rental market — as landlords cash out and sell their places instead of continuing to rent them — and that meant that when Stephan Hengst moved to town for his new job as director of the Provincetown Business Guild, he and his husband could not find a place to live.

His search dragged on for months, and was so public—texts, Instagram and Facebook posts, face-to-face pleas for leads — that when he walked down the street, “It was as if I’d lost a family member,” he said. “People would say, ‘I’m so sorry about your situation.’”

The couple finally found a rental — albeit only through Sept. 15 — and would have loved to buy, he said, if there were any affordable houses on the market.

The housing crunch has a few causes. What inventory did exist in 2020 was burned through in the frantic dash from the city as the pandemic shuttered life. Practically no new homes are being built. And a traditional and reliable source of inventory — Cape homeowners looking to sell their places and move to a bigger or smaller house — has dried up amid (justified) fears that if you do sell, you’ll have no place to go.

That’s a vicious cycle that has retirees like Suzanne Higgins “joking” that she is going to spend her whole retirement “looking for a retirement home.”

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“By the time I find a place I’ll be dead,” she said, laughing the joyless laugh of a woman who sold her five-bedroom, 100-year-old house last summer, certain she’d find a smaller and easier-to-care-for place.

But instead she finds herself making the long slog to the Cape from her home in Westford whenever a new property alert pops up, sometimes arriving after another buyer has swooped in and cut a deal.

“I have four grandchildren and they are looking at me like, ‘Did you find a house yet, Nana?’ I’m the bad guy for not having a Cape house for them this summer,” she said. “But they don’t understand real estate.”

But who could understand a market like this?

There are bidding wars over shacks. More than half of homes (53 percent) in March sold for over the asking price. Buyers are making sight-unseen offers. A growing number of people are using escalation clauses (which automatically increases the offer price by a certain amount above competing offers, up to a pre-set limit).

And cash, cash, cash! In March, about a third of sales were cash deals — up from one quarter pre-pandemic. (That’s bad news for poor schmoes who need a mortgage. Cash offers are preferable because no appraisal is necessary, the deal can close faster, and without a mortgage or other contingencies, there are no excuses for the buyer to change their mind.)

According to preliminary data released in April, in the first quarter of 2022, the median sales price was $650,000 for single-family homes and $425,000 for condominiums. That’s up substantially from the first quarter of 2020, when the median sales price for single family homes was $436,000, and $308,000 for condos.

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Kristy Senatori, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, a land-use planning, economic development, and regulatory agency, calls the lack of housing one of the Cape’s “most pressing needs.”

Buildable space on the Cape is of course limited, but it’s not like nothing is being done. Senatori pointed to action underway, both at the local and regional level: Many towns are revising zoning laws to allow for more and more varied types of housing, she said, and they are also working to enable smaller-scale fixes, such as letting owners add “accessory dwelling units” — such as an in-law apartment, or a self-contained apartment above a garage — to existing properties.

On a Cape-wide level, her commission has begun identifying areas that could accommodate construction of compact housing — something the Cape, with its large stock of single family homes, is short on.

Over the next year, the commission plans to develop a regional strategy to address housing supply, affordability, and availability.

But that doesn’t help people looking now. And as inventory dwindles, resentment is growing, toward cash buyers, wherever they’re from, and toward the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut crowd, which is believed to be snapping up more homes than in years past.

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While that belief is not true — tri-state-area buyers are holding steady at approximately 9 percent of buyers, according to Blatz — it feels good to have a villain.

Carvalho felt the threat from out-of-towners on a recent weekend. She was conferring with her real estate agent outside the Harwich home, the one owned by the smoker, and as they strategized, a line of cars, many with out-of-state plates, cruised slowly by, checking out the property.

“It was ominous,” she said.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.