Where has real estate really gone mad over the past five years? Cape Cod and the Islands.
It’s especially obvious at the highest end of the market. Median prices in Osterville, a swanky section of Barnstable, went from $597,000 to $999,000. The median on Nantucket, already over $1.3 million in 2017, rose 92 percent to $2.5 million in 2022. Even the traditionally lower-priced town of Yarmouth jumped 69 percent, from $310,000 to $525,000, according to The Warren Group, a real estate analytics company.
Here’s another way to put it: Of the 25 Massachusetts cities and towns that had the biggest percentage jump in median price over five years, 15 are on the Cape and Islands.
“It started June of 2020,” says Paul Grover, a broker and cofounder with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Robert Paul Properties, who has been selling real estate on the Cape since 1981. “I really have not seen anything like what we just experienced for the two solid years, June of ‘20 to June ‘22.”
Things cooled last fall with the rise in interest rates, but not by much. Second-home buyers tend to be less affected by rates than primary buyers, and many were paying cash anyway, Grover says. High rates also discouraged sellers from giving up existing low-rate mortgages, so inventory has remained low. In February, there were only 303 single-family properties listed for sale on the Cape, compared with almost 2,000 that month five years ago.
“But I think as we get closer to spring, we’re seeing some of the normal signs of activity picking up,” Grover says. “[Prices] might not be doing that run-up that we saw through those 24 months, but it doesn’t appear that they’re dropping, either.”
The boom has increased prices not only in the second-home areas of the Cape and Islands, but in traditionally year-round neighborhoods, adding pressure on a market that was already short on workforce housing. A single-family home priced at the 2022 Cape Cod median of $638,500 would now require an income of approximately $210,000 per year — significantly higher than Barnstable County’s median household income of $82,619, according to the Cape Cod Commission, the county planning agency.
Yet, the idea of seasonal wash-ashores or remote workers jamming the Cape and Islands real estate market seems to be overblown. In Barnstable County, two-thirds of buyers were looking for a year-round home and about half were already Cape residents, according to a 2021 random sample of 5,850 homeowners by the commission. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they were still working, although two-thirds reported working for off-Cape employers.
Among non-Cape residents, buyers mostly came from other places in the commonwealth. In 2019-2020, for example, 1,932 Massachusetts residents moved their primary addresses to Barnstable County. About 500 additional new residents moved from New York, Connecticut, California, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.
Many home buyers already had a connection to the Cape. Jesse Blatz, 50, for example, jumped at the chance to work remotely and move from California back to his native Brewster.
In July 2021, Blatz was the creative director of an ad agency in Los Angeles. But once the company gave him permission to continue working from home, it was like the “flip of a switch,” he says. He and his wife moved back with their two boys, then entering sixth and eighth grades, arriving Labor Day weekend, just in time for school to start. “We bought a house sight unseen,” he says.
Since then, he’s learned to navigate working across time zones as well as the culture shock of moving back to a place where he last lived as a teenager. He’s sensitive to the idea that others might see him as an interloper — a remote worker contributing to the housing affordability problem. But he notes he’s a Cape Codder, supporting the local economy by raising a family and plowing money into his fixer-upper house, while living near his parents in Brewster and his siblings in Eastham and Yarmouthport. And, there are now two younger Cape converts: his sons.
“It does feel overall good,” he says. “The kids love it here. That was something we were hoping wouldn’t be a problem, to uproot them. But they love it.”
Susan Moeller is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org