Looking For an Affordable House in the Upper Valley? Good Luck With That.

Mar 26, 2018

As part of our continuing series, The Balance, about the costs and benefits of living in New Hampshire, a lot of listeners have been writing in about how expensive it can be to buy a house here. It turns out lots of places in the state are also dealing with a housing shortage.

One place where that’s particular hard felt is the Upper Valley. NHPR’s Britta Greene caught up with Brendon Hoch, a listener based in Plymouth.  

Brendon wrote to us with a simple question: why does it cost so much to find housing in the Hanover area?

Hoch’s been living in Plymouth for nearly 15 years. He has a nice house for which he paid about $160,000, he said. It’s a three-bedroom ranch, gray with maroon shutters, and sits on about half an acre of land. The place has been great for him, his wife and their school-age son.

But recently Hoch took a new job at a research laboratory in Hanover, about an hour’s drive west. He’s been doing that commute since the fall of last year. Presumably, the next step would be moving closer to the office. 

But Hoch and his wife have been looking at real estate in the area and they’ve been having some sticker shock.

“It seems weird to me just because – I could see if we were living next to the ocean, or if we were right on a big lake,” he said. “Hanover - it’s a nice place. There’s lots of trails and everything, but there’s not that much here, specifically, other than Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital.”

Which leads to the question: Why are house prices so high in the Upper Valley?

In her office in West Lebanon, Realtor Leila Tarantelli scrolls through data on her computer. She’s looking at houses that have sold recently around Hoch’s budget range. They’re not exactly gems. One, for example, is tucked at the bottom of a hill, getting little light. The interior is dated.

“That’s why $350,000-450,000 is a tough price point in Hanover,” she said. “Usually everything in Hanover is $400,000 or more.”

By her read, what’s driving prices is pretty simple. There’s more people looking to buy than there are houses for them to purchase. “We’re shy about 5,000 homes in the immediate area around Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth College,” she said.

A sampling of recent Hanover listings on the real estate website Zillow

Major employers, like the college and the hospital, are good things in many ways - they’re helping drive the economy and make this area attractive to residents and visitors.

But all those employees need somewhere to live, and often they want to be close to work. As it stands, housing supply hasn’t kept up with demand.

“It’s a fairly defined trend that the inventories are becoming less and less each year,” said Tarantelli’s colleague Buff McLaughry, who’s been in the real estate business for nearly 40 years.

One way to solve the problem would be to build new homes. But interestingly, McLaughry said, a key thing limiting development is infrastructure, and by that he means pipes in the ground.

“You really have to have municipal water and sewer to get any density in housing,” he said. “There are some big towns - Hanover, Lebanon, Hartford - that have municipal systems, but even those municipal systems cover a very small percentage of the actual town area.”

Still, he said, there’s about 500 new units slated to be built this year. That includes condos and rentals, not just single family homes, and it won’t erase the overall shortage. But it’ll chip away at it, and maybe provide some relief for people like Hoch who feel priced out of the neighborhoods where they want to live.

For now, Hoch is hoping more places come on the market this spring. Until then, his commute continues in a fashion familiar to many New Hampshire workers - two-lane roads, winding through the woods and over the hills.

“It’s kind of funny because I’d love to be able to talk to my sister on the phone while she’s on her commute, but I’m driving on 25A where there’s no cell service,” he said.

“I have a lifetime satellite radio subscription in my car, but I can’t use it because I’m driving past these mountains and the signal gets blocked. So, about the only thing I can actually listen to is public radio a lot of the time.”

And in the end, that really isn’t so bad.

Do you have questions about the costs (and benefits) of living in New Hampshire? Submit your question here, and we could tackle it in an upcoming story for our series The Balance.