After Living the Van Life Across America They Want a Home in N.H.—If They Can Find One
Nationally, millennials now make up 42 percent of the people purchasing homes. That’s according to research from real estate website Zillow. But in New Hampshire’s tight housing market, many younger families face tough competition when it comes to buying their first home.
For our series “The Balance,” on the costs and benefits of settling down in the Granite State, we follow one couple as they try to buy a house.
Maybe you’ve heard of the whole “hashtag vanlife” thing? Katherine Ralph and her fiance Adam Charrette have been nomads for the last year and a half or so, living in 50 square feet of a ‘97 Dodge high top van. They’ve traveled to Arizona and even Alaska.
Now they’re back home in New Hampshire and ready to put down some roots.
“We’ve been all over the country, too,” Ralphs says. “And New Hampshire really is a growing area. It’s beautiful. It has everything we’ve seen from every other place in one small, little section of the country.”
Today, they’re looking at an old house in Bradford, right on the Warner River.
Inside this property, it’s clear it’s definitely older construction, late 1700s, actually. The stairs creak as we climb to the second floor.
Charrette comes down from the attic where he was inspecting how the roof is holding up.
“I mean it’s cool, [the age] adds some character for sure,” he says. “But it’s more just, are the bones still good and is it going to fall down?”
This place has an asking price of around $200,000. With a goal of putting under $20,000 down, it’s in their budget, too. But at this point in the search, Ralph and Charrette are careful not to get too hopeful. They’ve already seen eight properties and have been outbid twice. Their realtor, Vanessa Gaffey, says that’s not unusual for this market.
“There’s been, especially this year, a lot of competition,” Gaffey says. “So it’s really not uncommon for folks to look at several homes but also put in offers on several homes.”
Ralph and Charrette say this property has potential, but it does have structural concerns they come across a lot.
“The Granite State is tough for foundations,” Ralph says.
But they’re determined to find a home, even if it takes them a while.
"It may feel like there’s a lot of urgency in the marketplace because of the short housing supply, but the patient buyer that is armed with good information will make out the best,” says Robert Tourigny, Executive Director of Neighborworks Southern New Hampshire, a non-profit that provides housing education and seeks to increase home ownership.
A report over the summer from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority features research from Applied Economic Research president Russ Thibeault. It says, since the recovery from the Great Recession began, the Granite State has only added 25,000 new housing units. That’s about half of what he estimates is needed to keep up with demand.
New Hampshire, housing experts say, has an inventory problem. Especially when it comes to starter homes priced at what first-time homebuyers can afford.
So why aren’t those in the business of building new houses doing so?
“Just the cost of land and infrastructure, it’s gotten to the point where, if you’re a builder, you can’t really build a house and sell it for $200,000 without losing money,” says Carmen Lorentz, Executive Director of Lakes Region Community Developers, a non-profit that works to bring affordable housing to the area. Lorentz says the housing market in New Hampshire can be tough for first-time buyers like Ralph and Charrette.
“Those young couples always lose the bidding war because they don’t have the equity and the savings that the couple that’s retiring have,” Lorentz says. “So there just aren’t any options for those young families.”
But Lorentz and her group are trying to change that. After years of working on affordable multi-family housing, LRCD will start construction on its first single-family development. It’ll be a cluster of 20 houses in Wolfeboro -- complete with porches and backyards -- priced under $200,000. They can do this thanks to tax incentives and a federal grant.
“Building single-family homes for first-time homebuyers is really important because nobody is doing it,” says Lorentz. “Since the recession, most private builders are building higher-end homes because that’s really the only way they can make a profit.”
Recent reports suggest that the national housing market may be showing signs of a slowdown. Home sales activity in New Hampshire has slowed a bit, too, says Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Dean Christon. But he says one theory is that here, it may be linked back to the inventory problem.
“In other words, it’s not necessarily the case that there isn’t demand, it’s simply that there isn’t anything there for people to buy,” Christon says.
Months into their search, Ralph and Charrette now say they’ve looked at 15 properties -- and been outbid four times. They even thought about offering $10,000 over the asking price on one home they really liked. But they’re competing with people who don’t even need a mortgage.
“There’s been a lot of cash offers on the table,” Charrette says. “Which has been... difficult.”
Even though the search has been a little frustrating, for them, the timing -- and the place -- is just right.
“Before getting married, before having kids, it was really important for us to decide where we wanted to be in the world,” Ralph says.
They’re sure it’s New Hampshire. Now if only they could find a home of their own.