From Colorado to Texas, Remote Residential Communities Are Attracting City Dwellers Eager to Shed the Urban Life for a Home on the Range
When it comes to creating a sliding scale for how people have reacted to the global pandemic, on one side, you could put adopting a rescue dog on the other, more extreme side, you could put moving from an urban hub to a remote ranch, where the nearest Target is 90 miles away.
“Our primary home was in downtown, in Chicago’s Gold Coast, where we had lived for 12 years. We loved that everything was at our fingertips, and we’d spend a lot of time in New York and traveling internationally,” said Lori Hiltz, who decided to move with her husband to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, full time during the pandemic. “However, during the pandemic, there was nothing appealing anymore in Chicago, and we realized a mountain lifestyle would be ideal.”
Ms. Hiltz and her husband had previously purchased a mountain home in Steamboat Springs that they had used for ski trips, but they quickly realized that their vacation home wasn’t going to work as their forever home. So they’ve opted for something at Alpine Mountain Ranch & Club, a 1,216-acre community 10 minutes from the ski mountains and five minutes from the main town.“There are just 63 total homesites, and each is around 5 acres, but not a lot had been built yet, so you really had to have a vision,” Ms. Hiltz said. “We first saw it in July 2020, purchased in October 2020, and our home should be complete by October 2022. The pandemic definitely influenced our timeline. Here we were, in the prime of our lives, healthy and wanting to do things outside, and we realized that the craziness of city life was just taking more out of us than we were getting back.”
Sky High Sales
The Hiltzes are hardly alone in their sentiments—and actions. Across the U.S., residential communities offering ranch life have boomed with buyer interest and sales, and the demand to build new ranch homes—loosely defined as anything occupying a significant amount of acreage in a somewhat remote setting—has accelerated at a crazed pace.
“In 2019, we had one sale at Alpine,” said Suzanne Schlicht, the community’s director of sales who has lived in Steamboat Springs for 30 years, the last three of which she’s spent working at Alpine. “In the second half of 2020, we had six sales, and in the first nine months of 2021, we’ve had 17 sales. Prices [which start at $1.75 million] have gone up too, rising 14.5% in 2021 above what they were in 2020, and they’ll likely only go up more next year.”
However, the determining factor for most buyers isn’t necessarily buying at the right time for value, it’s scarcity and the realization that life is short, and the time to enjoy a better life is now.
To that end, communities like Alpine have created their own building companies to expedite the process.
With labor shortages happening across the country, Alpine started its own construction arms around March 2020, which allows the company to contract workers to build eight homes at once, keeping workers employed full time and at a steady pace, reducing building times to just 18 to 24 months.
Three hundred miles to the west, in Park City, Utah, Benloch Ranch has taken a different approach to create custom homes for its residents. “We’ve created a proprietary system for building homes, where we do most of the construction off-site and prefabricate a lot of the elements,” said the community’s developer, Jamie Mackay, 43. “We’ve already purchased the materials, so we’re staying in front of the supply chain, but we are also doing it in an eco-friendly way.” Mr. Mackay cited the homes’ energy-efficient insulation. With a modern, glass-wall aesthetic defining most of the homes’ design, glass walls are made from double-pane thermal glass, with double-insulation on the roofs as well, which cuts heating and cooling bills in half. And, the building times are faster too.“Once a contract is signed, it takes homeowners about three weeks to design, and then eight to 14 months until they can move in, which is about 40% faster than it would typically take,” said Mr. Mackay. The expedited process has certainly come in handy during Benloch’s now-fortuitous launch time.“I purchased the land, over 2,600 acres, three years ago, and it took about 18 months to get through the master plan and layout the roads,” he said. “Everything was on track before Covid. Then it hit, and we all held our breath for a minute. However, we launched in September 2020 and in our first 47 days sold 156 homes. Since then, we’ve sold an additional 600 lots and had more than $100 million in sales.”
Prices at Benloch start at $999,000 for a 2,500-square-foot home on one-eighth of an acre, but estate lots also offer homes on up to 3 acres of land. At build-out, it will offer its 2,100 homeowners a comprehensive community complete with 20 miles of hiking and biking, cross-country skiing, a sledding hill, skeet shooting range, archery, ice skating pond, glamping facilities, and more.
A New Lifestyle for Former Big-city Dwellers
Indeed, the open space of ranch life might be what sparks initial interest for potential buyers, but the tipping factor that has people deciding to abandon city life might be the amenities and the creation of a community. At Driftwood Golf & Ranch Club, the new Discovery Land Company development on 800 acres about 25 miles southwest from Austin, Texas, homeowners have typical amenities Discovery Land has come to be known for—a Tom Fazio golf course, ample comfort stations, an outdoor activities program but also an on-property vineyard, an organic farm, an activity barn for things like bowling and arts and crafts, a pool and lazy river, a pond stocked for fishing and access to a private members club in downtown Austin.
“We started sales here in 2018, and we had always seen interest in people wanting to live in a no [income] tax state, but by mid-summer 2020, we saw a huge influx in buyer interest brought on by the pandemic and the realization that you didn’t have to be in the office five days a week,” said Caleigh Bressler, director of marketing at Driftwood, where prices start at around $3 million.
Those still wanting the occasional taste of city life to have the option of joining Driftwood Downtown, Discovery’s private member's club in the heart of Austin, complete with three stories of bars, a rooftop lounge, golf simulator, and ample opportunities for social gatherings and networking. “Even when you take into account a bit of a slowdown in early 2020, our sales were up 230% in 2020 over 2019, and up an additional 160% from that in the first nine months of 2021,” Ms. Bressler said.
The combination of favorable taxes and ranch life also resonates at Snake River Sporting Club in Jackson, Wyoming. The 1,000-acre community technically first came to life in 2006, when the Tom Weiskopf–designed golf course opened but didn’t build momentum until around 2016 when a new developer came in and gave it a second life.
The community consists of 14 estate lots each occupying 35 acres (priced from $4.5 million) and 62 residence lots ranging from 0.5 to 2 acres (priced from $1.3 million for a homesite or from $3.4 million for a 3,200-square-foot home). In 2019, just one Ranch Estate lot sold, but Snake River saw the sale of four such lots between the end of 2020 and early this year. It isn’t just sales that have taken off, but construction as well.
“We previously had two Ranch Estates and 15 Residences built, but now we have about 40 homes under construction here, all at once,” said Joe Amdor, Snake River’s executive vice president of real estate sales.
With so much of Jackson being spread out, the Snake River’s private membership club, which costs $150,000 to join, acts as a hub for locals to gather and create their own community. “We added nearly 80 new members in 2020, and almost 70 new members in the first nine months of 2021, for a total of 455 throughout the various categories,” said Mr. Amdor.
“Ranch life is an adjustment,” said Ms. Hiltz. “We’re 87 miles over a mountain pass from the nearest Target, and 90 miles also over a mountain pass and in the opposite direction—from the nearest Costco, but instead of city rats, our animal encounters are with bears, moose, deer, and elk. But I’m still pinching myself at how special it is to get to live around nature like this.”