BILLINGS - The ability to own a home has always been a key measure of economic well-being in the United States, with some even calling it the 'American Dream.' In the years leading up to 2020, home ownership rates were making a rebound until COVID-19 changed the world as we know it.
Frosty Erben, President of the Billings Association of Realtors, says before the pandemic, states like Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and North and South Dakota were starting to become recognized as desirable places to live. These northwestern states have less congestion, many leisure time activities, give people the ability to get out into nature without crowds and are not as likely as other states to be affected by natural disasters.
"We started to see our inventory shrink," Erben said. "That was also followed by extremely low interest rates, people wanting to get into the market while the interest rates were low."
Fast-forward to spring of 2020. With the pandemic in full swing, realtors had to follow rigorous COVID-19 protocols such as wearing booties over shoes, limiting a showing to two people at a time, as well as the usual masking, sanitizing and social distancing safety measures. Erben said nobody knew what exactly would happen to the local real estate market, but at that time they saw an influx of people coming from out of state.
"In the last year and a half I've had the opportunity to work with three couples from California, one from Oregon, two from Texas and one from Pennsylvania," Erben said.
So with Montana on the map, homes are being picked off the market quickly, and that's a good thing, right? Well, if the majority are coming in from out of state, this poses a challenge for the average Montana home buyer.
"There's a tremendous number of buyers in the market that are waiting for the property that they can qualify for to show up," Erben said.
If there's not enough homes to go around, what about building your own home? It seems the pandemic has affected that too.
"There's more demand for materials than there is supply. Consequently, the prices going up," Erben said.
According to Random Lengths, the price of lumber per thousand board feet as of March 11 is at an all time high of $1,044, up 188% since the start of the pandemic. The National Home Builders Association estimates these lumber prices are adding at least $24,000 to building the average single-family home.
"There's still a tremendous amount of people wanting to buy homes in our area and I can't see that stopping," Erben said.