Steamboat Springs Local residents who don't own their homes sometimes feel as if they're watching the best party ever thrown but can't get in the door.
Between 1992 and 2002, single-family homes in Routt County more than doubled their values, according to the Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors. Local homeowners got returns on their homes that they never could have gotten in the stock market.
Renters simply paid more rent.
In a market where the average price of a home is more than $500,000 and the median price is up to $395,000 this year, home ownership is not financially possible for many residents.
Still, many people in the valley with modest incomes have purchased homes. They did it, broker Karen Beauvais said, by seizing opportunities.
"The most important thing people have to know is that they have to start somewhere," she said. "You have to stop saying 'I can't' and start saying 'I will.' Then you have to say, 'This is how I will do it.'"
Skipping the homes-for-sale section of the classifieds and focusing instead on the condominiums and townhomes section is the first step for many people. Last week, some one-and-two bedroom condos were listed below $100,000 and townhomes began around $124,000.
No one will say these homes are mansions, but most buyers don't plan to stay there forever. The idea is to let the property appreciate with time then sell it and upgrade, said Beauvais, who also is the president of the Regional Affordable Living Foundation board.
Though the housing market in Steamboat may intimidate newcomers, it also rewards those who take the plunge.
Beauvais said the market has been on the rise for a quarter-century and she's no reason why that trend won't continue.
Just did it
A year and a half ago, 29-year-old Troy Phillips took a bonus he got from his job as a salesman at Christy Sports, pooled it with money his girlfriend saved, and together they had the 3 percent downpayment they needed as first-time homebuyers to buy a $103,000 condominium. They improved it and recently sold it for $120,000.
The profit they netted allowed the couple to qualify for a condo nearly twice that value.
"I always wanted to buy and I always was looking into it a little bit, but I was scared off," said Phillips, a Routt County resident for eight years. "But the reality is, once I really started looking into it, and because of my work history and that I have good credit, they (real estate agents) said, 'Yes, you can do it.'"
Phillips said it became even more reasonable when he accepted roommates to live at the home, bringing his responsibility for a loan payment down. Meanwhile, the home's equity was building.
Good credit, a steady job and a plan for a downpayment are the three key factors in being able to buy property, Beauvais said.
The latter can be saved, loaned by a family member or even bypassed by special zero percent down programs, Beauvais said.
It's not always easy, especially finding a secure job, but it is the reality of entering into the housing market in the Yampa Valley.
Everyone is a year away from moving
"I think buying a home here is more accessible than people think," Penny Hass said.
Hass, 27, and her husband, Kristian Hass, 28, rolled into Steamboat four years ago. They were fresh out of the University of Iowa and thought the Yampa Valley would be a good place to spend a year or so.
After finding work, one year eventually turned into two and they decided Steamboat is a place where they could spend more time, maybe even the rest of their lives. At that point, renting didn't make sense.
"We didn't even think about owning," Penny Hass said of the first two years they were in town. "For all we knew, we'd be here for a season."
Lots of new residents are like that in Steamboat, she said. Many people in the Yampa Valley feel like they are a year away from moving, even if they end up staying a few years.
"I think it mostly comes down to deciding to stay in Steamboat," she said.
When the couple made that decision to stay and looked into buying a condo, they realized it was possible to own if they didn't mind living in a one-bedroom unit.
"The whole thing was done for right around $5,000," she said. "That's not a whole lot."
Today, Penny Hass works at the Steamboat Brewery and Tavern and recently became a licensed real estate broker. Kristian Hass is an office manager. In September they plan to close on a two-bedroom, two-bath townhome that doubles the value of their first home.
"I don't find that you have to sacrifice all that much," said Penny, who admitted to being a little frugal anyways. "You just have to make some difficult decisions."
Change your perspective
It's common for people searching for a home in Steamboat Springs to have high expectations for the kind of home they want, Beauvais said.
Most often overlooked before people come here is that Steamboat Springs' housing market is comparable to coastlines in California, where unaffordable housing is nearly accepted. Census information shows Routt County is the 20th most expensive county in the United States, out of 3,441 counties.
The fact is, having a world-class ski resort in town is novel and it always will affect the housing market. There are plenty other mountain communities with accessible and affordable homes; they just don't have ski resorts.
That doesn't mean the middle class should reconsider moving here or feel as if they can't own property in the Yampa Valley. It does mean some initial sacrifices may have to be made. Eric and Deanna Simonsen, for example, lived in a trailer in West Acres, sharing it with two other guys.
"It wasn't easy," Deanna recalled. "One bathroom, myself and three guys."
Eric bought the trailer before they were married and had a mortgage. In 2000, the couple sold the mobile home, paid off the mortgage and bought land in Stagecoach for less than $20,000. Now the Simonsens have a child and are renting a condo in Stagecoach while Eric, who is a general contractor, builds their new home.
Deanna pointed out a big part of being able to afford property in Stagecoach was the couple's employment success. Since Deanna and Eric moved to Steamboat in the 1990s to ski, they've developed good careers. Deanna is a graphic designer, with a college degree in the field, and Eric owns a construction business with his father.
"I was also willing to do a lot of other things," said Deanna, who came to Steamboat in 1995 with no job. "I worked three jobs at one time, and certainly if my husband wasn't a builder, we couldn't do this."
Choosing property out of town also helped them find an inexpensive option for a single-family home.
Affordable single-family homes in Steamboat Springs can be allusive. Some potential homebuyers in the Yampa Valley won't or can't spend two years in a one- or two-bedroom condominium, or they need to upgrade from a condo to a single-family home. They may have children or just don't want live in a multifamily unit.
Co-housing and other recent affordable housing projects have provided some options, but those opportunities have limited openings.
That's when some really difficult decisions have to be made. Most employment in the Yampa Valley is in or around Steamboat Springs, keeping people tied to the community. But affordable single-family home options for the middle class in Steamboat aren't exactly clear.
Beauvais said considering living in Hayden or Oak Creek shouldn't be ruled out. Many people are weary of the commute, but just as many locals make the half-hour drive to Steamboat every day to work with not much problems. Compared to the rest of United States, commuting a half-hour in Routt County is fairly common.
"People complain about having to drive 25 miles for work, but how far are people in Denver commuting?" Beauvais asked.
Even with winter conditions, commuting to work can be a reasonable option. Plus, housing appreciates in the outlying communities as well, which can allow people to move back to Steamboat if they choose.
A move to Hayden was part of Tom Ihrig's story of getting an affordable single-family home for his family in Steamboat Springs. Ihrig and his wife, Joan, owned an 1,100-square-foot home in Steamboat II when they had their second child in 1993. They decided they needed a bigger place but couldn't afford it in Steamboat.
"It was kind of like a stepping stone for us," Tom Ihrig said.
They found a larger home in Hayden, which allowed Ihrig to have a home office, and lived in it from 1993 to 1997. In that time, the Hayden home gained 45 percent in value, which allowed them to move back to Steamboat II to a home that accommodated the family.
Ihrig, who works at Community First National Bank in Steamboat, viewed his 25-minute drive to work during those four years as similar to his father's commute to work in Ohio when Tom was a child.
"I didn't think it was that bad," he said.
Homes in Oak Creek can be as low as $80,000 and a nice property and house in Hayden can be found for as low as $135,000, Beauvais pointed out.
Generally, the low-price condos and townhomes in Steamboat and reasonable single-family homes in surrounding communities look like the obvious solution for owning a home. In individual cases, personal financial history is the biggest hurdle for people wanting to get a loan to buy their first property.
John Goemans, a loan officer from Mountain Mortgage Center, said the most common problem he sees with people wanting to get a loan for a home is debt versus their gross annual income.
"It makes it hard to qualify them for a reasonably priced home," he said.
Most often, Goemans explained, the accumulated debt is a car loan.
Debt is a two-fold problem. The income the person is bringing in is related to the employment opportunities in the area. Most often the debt is something that couldn't be avoided, such as a car loan or a school loan. That leaves some people in a pickle.
"The problem is, prior to this point, they haven't thought about buying a house," Goemans said.
The solutions are plain. Interested homebuyers need to find a way to increase their income or invest some time in paying down the debt they already have.
Good credit, of course, also is important, Goemans added. There are programs out their today for people with good credit where debt and income problems can be solved, as well as breaks on downpayments.
In fact, with those programs in place, people with good credit have more options in 2002 than they did in the past, even with today's inflated property values.
"Truthfully, it's always been that way and it always will be that way," Goemans said of expensive property in the Yampa Valley.
The bottom line for people who want to own their home is to buy something as soon as they can. If that means taking a year to fix debt and income problems, that's part of the plan. Most likely, the first home won't be ideal. But, as Beauvais explained, it's important for people to keep their dream of the home they want. That first home is what leads people to a property they will love in the future.
"Lower your expectations to accommodate yourself right now," Beauvais suggested. "And always have your dream."