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Second homes 12 per cent of sales

WASHINGTON D.C. — Are you under the impression that only ski towns and resort valleys have second-home owners? Think again.

WASHINGTON D.C. — Are you under the impression that only ski towns and resort valleys have second-home owners? Think again.

The National Association of Realtors reports that vacation properties accounted for 12 per cent of all homes sold last year, and 28 per cent of homes were bought for investment purposes.

Typical vacation buyers last year were 52 years old, earned $82,800, and purchased a property that was a median of 197 miles from their primary homes. This profile differed little from that of investment homebuyers, except that investment homes were likely to be close to the original home.

USA Today explains that this rally in vacation and investment homes began in 1997, when congress changed the tax code, allowing most homeowners to duck capital gains taxes when selling their homes. The exemption is $500,000 for married couples, $250,000 for singles, if it was their primary residence for two of the previous five years.

Before, explains the newspaper, the only way to avoid the tax was to use the gained equity to buy another one of equal or greater value. But now, they can downsize and use the money instead to buy a second home.

But there’s something else going on, too. Baby boomers are entering their peak earning years. The most active buyers of vacation and investment homes are people in their 50s. Currently, there are 36 million people in that age bracket. However, with 45 million people in their 40s, the market is expected to remain strong for a long time, says David Lereah, the chief economist for the Realtors.

However, Lereah believes the vacation- and investment-home buying binge will drop to 30 per cent of all home sales, maybe less. He cites higher interest rates, higher lending standards, and slower price appreciation.

Living the nano-dream

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen is like all other ski towns in the West, except exaggerated. There, the locals talk not only of McMansions, but of Garage Mahals.

But the flip side is what might be called the Nanohomes – at least compared with the big homes. Aspen Times reporter Jeanne McGovern explored that aspect of Aspen, noting that some 4,500 of the town’s residents – almost half – live in homes that are smaller than the national average.

For the record, that national average has been expanding: from 1,600 square feet in 1973 to about 2,400 square feet as of 2004. Aspen is not a city suburb, but a place of superlatives in almost every way. Because they want to have their children in the good local schools and to avoid the commute, many locals are willing to make this trade-off of smaller homes.

"We understand the suburban dream, but we don’t need it," says McGovern who, with her husband, is rearing children in a three-bedroom condominium – with no particular aspirations to ever find a house.

It is a lifestyle choice, says a young single professional, Erik Skaravan. "Living small allows you to live big in Aspen," he says.

Film fest speakers remembered

BANFF, Alberta — Bernadette McDonald, the director of the 31-year-old Banff Mountain Film Festival is moving on, eager to get at several writing projects. Started in 1976 as a one-night slide show, the festival has expanded to a nine-day extravaganza that draws about 10,000 people.

Through the years the festival has featured any number of climbers. Among those who spoke McDonald remembers Reinhold Messner, who "dominated that stage," she said. Another was Sir Edmund Hillary. And not least was Carlos Carsolio, the fourth and youngest man to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks without supplemental oxygen. "It was the most emotional presentation of mountain climbing I’ve ever seen," McDonald told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

As for her present and urgent plans, she intends to write a biography of Charles Houston, the famous mountaineer and physician who is now in his 90s and in deteriorating health. In addition to scaling K2, he was also among the world’s renowned experts on high-altitude medicine.

Utah drawing skiers

PARK CITY, Utah — Who says the ski industry is flat? That’s certainly not the case in Utah. Skier days there have increased 29 per cent during the last three years, and this year broke the four million barrier. While some of the gains could have been explained in previous years by droughts elsewhere in the west, that’s not the case this year. Nearly all areas of the west had good snow. Some of Utah’s success is attributed to the greater realization by the nation’s skiers how close the airport at Salt Lake City is to the ski slopes, no more than 45 minutes in most cases.

Newest big box is circular

AVON, Colo. — Two big boxes, Home Depot and Wal-Mart Supercenter, are found along I-70 in Avon. Both are gussied up but remain big boxes typical of suburbia.

But next door a new building called Traer Creek Plaza will soon go on line that is very different indeed. For starters, it is not a box, but semi-circular.

It will also have a sod roof. The sod roof will be planted with 17 species of sedum sod, plants that are more like a bean sprout than grass. Colors will change from rust brown to yellow, orange, and green before returning to brown in fall. A drip irrigation system is to be installed.

Why sod? In addition to the changing colors, says Erik Peterson, a vice president for construction at Traer Creek, the sod roof prevents storm water from being polluted as it drains, decreases air conditioning costs, has a longer life than a conventional roof, creates habitat for insects, and increases oxygen.

Even more unusual, the building uses no building columns, but will have what the Vail Daily likens to archers’ bows, creating a curved roof that is flexible, capable of moving in any direction.

Peterson said the building is among the most unusual structures in the West. "I fully expect it to win awards."

The developer is planning to seek certification under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program.

Green building debuts

HEBER CITY, Utah — So-called green building practices are, if still not commonplace, increasingly frequent in the ski towns and other outlying mountain towns in the West. A case in point is Heber City, which is kind of a bedroom community for Park City.

There, a 12,000-square-foot office building has been constructed that uses a variety of techniques to reduce the heating and lighting bill – and, as such, cause less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, explains the Park Record, a ground-source heat pump system was installed at an extra cost of $45,000 to $50,000; it draws on the earth’s temperature of 56 degrees to provide heat in winter and cooling in summer. The principle is much the same as that of a refrigerator. The building’s planners expect to recoup the up-front costs within five years as a result of lower utility bills.

Passive solar is also in place. Windows will allow maximum solar in winter, and minimal solar in summer. Interior lighting is sunlight-sensitive, so that the lights will dim and brighten as needed.

A green building council is being planned to provide public education on green building. The Park City Home Builders Association is deeply involved in this, as are several governments.

Untreated water for parks

VAIL, Colo. — Vail is planning to revise its water system to avoid irrigating two of the community’s larger parks, Ford and Donovan, with treated water. The new system that will provide raw water will cost the district almost $400,000, but will save the town between $10,000 and $20,000 a year in reduced treatment costs during the next two decades. Work on the new system will begin in September, town officials say.

Tomatoes at 9,000 feet

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Who says you can’t grow tomatoes at 9,000 feet? Certainly Yvette Henson, a horticulturalist who works as an extension agent in the Telluride area. Leaf lettuce can grow bushy and ample during Telluride’s 60-day growing season, perennial flowers can bloom brightly, and herbs can grow fragrant and full, she told the Telluride Daily Planet. As for the notoriously fickle tomatoes, she advises that you "have to do it a certain way." She comes by her expertise partly through her inheritance. Both of her grandfathers were miners and grew kitchen gardens.

Language gap growing

EAGLE VALLEY, Colo. — Public schools in the Vail-dominated Eagle Valley are a mixed bag, almost evenly split between Hispanics, many of them immigrants, and Caucasians.

Fluency is also a mixed bag. Not quite two-thirds (62 per cent) of Hispanics are fluent in English, but 38 per cent speak only some or no English. In some schools, such as at Avon, at the foot of Beaver Creek, the percentage of no- or little-English is even higher, some 82 per cent.

School officials say the influence of language on test scores is profound. Students struggling to take tests in a language they don’t completely understand have struggled. While Caucasian and Hispanic third-graders who grew up speaking English ranked better than 80 per cent on these standardized tests, the struggles of those still learning English have dragged down the district-wide test scores to 69 per cent. Statewide the average is 70 per cent.

"These scores are further evidence of how the language gap in our schools leads to an achievement gap," said John Brendza, the school district superintendent.

While overall in Colorado 10 per cent of students have limited or no English, it’s 38 per cent in the Eagle Valley.

Islands of blue in sea of red

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — The election of 2004 showed a remarkable voting trend across the Rocky Mountains. Virtually without exception, the ski towns and resort valleys voted for John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for U.S. president, making them islands of blue in the ocean of Republican red that defines the Rocky Mountain West.

Some of these islands were by no means surprising. Aspen’s Pitkin County and Telluride’s San Miguel County have long been unshakably Democratic. Others began shifting in the 1990s. Vail’s Eagle County in 1992, in addition to voting for Bill Clinton, also voted in a black man who espoused growth-control measures for county commissioner. Jackson Hole’s Teton County also crossed the aisle to vote for Clinton in that same election.

In 2004, a host of other traditionally Republican counties – Steamboat’s Routt County and Winter Park’s Grand County among them – also went Democratic.

What is counterintuitive about this shift toward more liberal, more Democratic politicians is that the ski towns have become more wealthy places during this time. Instead of being driven by tourism, they have become amenity-rich lifestyle havens. We tend to think of higher incomes being more Republican, but that’s not the story here.

Continuing to probe these changes is Hole’s Jonathan Schechter, who heads something called the Charture Institute. A superb numbers-cruncher, clearly demonstrates this correlation toward Democratic voting trends and real estate wealth that have come to define the resort towns.

From 1990 to 2004, the median value of homes in the United States rose $40,500, he reports. During that same span the median value increased by $162,000 in only 10 counties: two on the East Coast, and eight in the Rocky Mountains.

The two on the East Coast were: New York City and Massachusetts’s Nantucket Island. Resort counties in the West were five in Colorado: Pitkin (Aspen/Snowmass); Eagle (Vail, Beaver Creek); San Miguel (Telluride), Summit (Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper); and Routt (Steamboat).

Also in the top 10 were: Wyoming’s Teton County (Jackson Hole), and Utah’s Summit County (Park City). Just outside the top 10 was Idaho’s Blaine County (Ketchum/Sun Valley).

In the case of Teton County, Republicans habitually triumphed, even going for Barry Goldwater in 1964. But beginning in 1990, as real estate prices began to rapidly escalate and more people arrived to live year round, it began moving briskly toward support of Democratic candidates.

The parking conundrum

KETCHUM, Idaho — Amid flooding of the Big Wood River and angered debate about wolves, Ketchum continues its more polite but still earnest discussion about what to do with its downtown.

The Idaho Mountain Express call the debate an "inherent conundrum."

"Residents want more affordable housing units to stem the exodus of their community, but many don't want increased density. They want more places to park, but fewer ugly parking lots. They want more hotels, but no tall buildings blocking views," reports the newspaper’s Rebecca Meany.

Among the perplexities is parking. While people want convenient parking, the fact is that on-site parking is expensive and ultimately annoying. "You’ve made parking a dominant feature," says consultant Tom Hudson. "In our view, this is an auto-dominated downtown." He questions whether the town owes everybody a $40,000 parking place.

Durango feels vulnerable

DURANGO, Colo. — Despite a relatively healthy March, the past winter in the Durango area was generally reminiscent of the winter of 2001-02. Sparse precipitation that winter was followed by the monstrous Missionary Ridge fire that burned 79,000 acres. Fears of a repeat have remained in Durango this year, just off centre stage. A recent 10-acre fire seems to have reminded local residents of their vulnerability, according to various local reports.