The price of paradise

Check around ... Steamboat's a bargain

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It's a statement that nearly every newcomer to Steamboat Springs makes, usually shortly after arrival and when looking for somewhere to live:

"What??? $300,000 for a condo? Back home in (fill in the blank with Anytown, U.S.A.), that'll buy you a four-bedroom house with a wraparound porch, two-car garage and a tennis court in the backyard!"

Sticker shock is as much a part of moving to Steamboat as losing your breath because of altitude when climbing a flight of stairs. And in a city that is increasingly populated by second- or third-home owners and location-neutral businesspeople, the cost of living often has the greatest impacts on low- to middle-income residents, a.k.a. the working class.

But are the numbers in Steamboat Springs really that different from other parts of the country? Is the sticker shock of newcomers justified, or just barroom exaggeration?

Do you wonder what it costs to live somewhere else?

A totally objective, non-comprehensive glance around the country can answer those questions - or at least have a little fun.

In San Francisco's Ingleside Heights neighborhood, for example, a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom home on Ramsell Street - which slopes steeper than the North St. Pat's trail at Steamboat Ski Area - was listed for $593,750 in September.

According to one local realty group, about $590,000 is the going price for a 2,360-square-foot home in Stagecoach, with three bedrooms and a two-car garage.

The bang for your buck is even less in the Big Apple. In New York City's Greenwich Village, a co-op "alcove studio" with one bathroom goes for $639,000.

For a studio.

In Steamboat Springs, you can buy a three-bedroom, three-bath downtown condo for about $620,000, as of September, when a log home on 5 acres in North Routt County was listed at $639,000.

But expensive city living is no surprise. Let's go a little more rural.

In Coffeyville, Kan., a community of about 11,000 people near the Oklahoma border, a two-story, three-bedroom house with a fireplace and lovely French doors can be yours for $58,000.

Want to guess what that buys in the Yampa Valley?

About 0.6 acres of land in Stagecoach, listed at $58,500 on Sept. 21. Or a handful of timeshares on the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area.

The average price of a single-family home in Steamboat Springs is more than $810,000, and has increased 30 percent in the past two-and-a-half years.

Resort living

Figures maintained by the Rocky Mountain Real Estate Alliance confirm that Steamboat is one of only a handful of destination ski towns where you can still aspire to purchase a single-family home for less than $1 million.

Vail's average single-family home price in 2007 is about $1.4 million, and it should come as no surprise that, by far, the highest average single-family home prices in the Colorado mountains are in Aspen, at $5.38 million.

As recently as 2005, Aspen's average price was $2.58 million.

Daniel Foley, a certified financial planner with Sleeping Giant Financial Services in Steamboat, said home ownership in Steamboat is an unrealistic goal for anyone making less than $50,000 a year.

"I don't care where you live, you don't own a house right away," Foley said.

According to the most recently available data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, when adjusted for inflation, Routt County's per capita personal income increased from $38,712 in 2003 to $41,558 in 2005. That 7.4 percent increase was higher than Colorado's as a whole, which was 3.8 percent.

Ed Allbright of Columbine Mortgage agreed that even with a good credit score and modest assets, buying a house in Steamboat is still probably unattainable for many in the local working class.

A first-year teacher in Steamboat making a gross salary of about $31,000, for example, would actually lose money - let alone save for a home purchase - while paying just $900 a month in rent and utilities in addition to a monthly car payment, food costs, and barebones recreational expenses.

"If you don't have at least two jobs in Steamboat, you're unemployed," Joe Birkinbine of ATP Financial Services recently told the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

The other option, Allbright said, would be to settle for a home in an outlying community such as Hayden or Craig.

"The easy answer is commute," Allbright said. "That's just the way life is."

It's a long drive home to Coffeyville.

- Mike Lawrence

Brandon Gee and Tom Ross

also contributed to this story.

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