Meg Streeter of Wilmington is a lifelong Vermonter and real estate agent who works predominantly in Windham County’s residential market. After 32 years in the business, she has a pretty good idea of what it takes to sell a home in her area. These days, that includes high-speed internet service.
“In the last five to eight years, it’s become a must-have,” says Streeter, whose territory includes Wilmington and Dover, where 90 percent of the real estate transactions involve vacation homes bought by out-of-state residents. “It’s the rare person who’s coming here to get away from it all,” she adds. “They don’t really want to be that away from it all.”
Until about five years ago, many home appraisals and building inspections didn’t even mention internet connectivity, says Isaac Chavez, CEO of Vermont Realtors1, the 1,700-member real estate trade organization. Today, Realtors routinely use a form called the Seller’s Property Information Report. The six-page document asks sellers to disclose virtually every feature of the property, from the number of bathrooms and bedrooms to the type of foundation, roof, septic system and appliances. It also includes a “telephone/internet/television” section that asks whether internet service is available on the premises and, if so, what kind: dial-up, broadband, cable, satellite and/or DSL. That info gets entered in the broker’s multiple listing system, or MLS, so buyers can weed out houses that lack the features they want.
Chavez says it’s common for prospective buyers to tell their agent they’re looking for, say, a three-bedroom home in Newport in the $150,000 to $200,000 price range, but for the agent then to only show them houses with broadband access. If a house doesn’t have it, he says, the buyers never see it.
“Anecdotally, I hear all the time that people pass up houses without broadband availability,” he says, “but I don’t have any way to quantify that.”
Vermonters have long bemoaned the digital divide that separates residents of the state’s more populated areas notably, Chittenden County, where broadband coverage is widely available from multiple providers from their more remote counterparts. Those in the real estate business say that, depending on a property’s location, broadband access can make or break the deal. Though Streeter can’t put a dollar figure on the value of high-speed internet, she says, “Basically, if the house doesn’t have it, in my opinion, it is unlikely to sell.”
Streeter isn’t alone in that observation. Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-West Dover) represents the towns of Dover, Wardsboro, Readsboro, Stamford, Searsburg, Somerset and part of Whitingham. A review of the Vermont Department of Public Service’s most current statewide map of broadband availability, released in April, reveals that much of Sibilia’s southern Vermont district is stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
VTel2, the Springfield-based telecom company that received a $5 million state grant in 2012 to provide wireless broadband to underserved areas in Bennington, Rutland, Windham and Windsor counties, has yet to deliver on that promise, Sibilia says.
Consider Readsboro, she goes on, located along the Massachusetts border. It was once a thriving community that housed workers from a local chair factory, the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant and Westfield Paper Company’s glassine factory just across the state line. When all three employers closed in the 1980s and ’90s, some 300 to 400 jobs disappeared. Sibilia readily acknowledges that the lack of broadband in Readsboro isn’t the only obstacle to economic recovery. But its absence makes it even more difficult to attract home buyers and new businesses.
“Kids can’t do their homework, because the service has not been built up from the school,” she says. “People are literally abandoning their homes that have been on the market for years and they can’t sell.”
The Federal Communications Commission3 now defines broadband as internet speeds of at least 4 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 1 Mpbs upstream 4/1 for short. According to Jim Porter, director of telecommunications and connectivity at the Department of Public Service, of the 300,000 addresses in Vermont, 71 percent have access to broadband speeds of 25/3 or higher. “Frankly, broadband is more important to people today than voice service,” he says. To date, no one has analyzed the relationship between Vermont real estate prices and broadband. Anecdotally, however, the differences are obvious to those who handle real estate deals in areas where one community has access and a neighboring one does not.
Sibilia cites the example of Wardsboro, which abuts two ski areas: Stratton Mountain and Mount Snow. It should have a bustling market for vacation homes. However, the combination of poor cellular coverage and low internet availability along Route 100 has made it difficult for people to sell homes there. Meanwhile, just nine miles away in Dover, a community that invested heavily in its broadband and cellular infrastructure, the real estate market is faring much better. Chavez points out that real estate values are determined by a variety of factors, and other considerations can trump lack of broadband. A good example, he says, is Washington County, where the strength of the real estate market is due to the number of state workers who want to live there.
Still, many homes outside of downtown Montpelier and Barre have poor internet service. Chavez discovered as much himself when he moved to Vermont from New Mexico four years ago. He says he was shocked to find that his internet speeds were terrible in East Montpelier, where he had purchased a house.
“I don’t even bother to try to work at home anymore. I just drive to the office,” he says. “Luckily, I’m only seven minutes away.”
According to Chavez, one common variable is the price point of the home itself. If it’s a home in the $300,000 to $1 million range in, say, Manchester or Stowe, it’s likely that the sellers have invested “whatever it takes” to get high-speed internet. Sellers who haven’t done that are most likely to run into trouble with $300,000 to $500,000 homes between Newport and Jay Peak “in the middle of nowhere.” Though rural buyers typically don’t expect lightning-fast internet connections, higher-end homes can be challenging to sell if they have both poor internet and spotty cellphone coverage. (According to Porter, 55 percent of Americans now access the internet through mobile devices.)
“That’s an even worse selling point than the broadband,” Chavez asserts. “There are places that you just can’t get a cellphone signal, and that can be a serious deal killer, because potential buyers see it as a safety issue.”
For her part, Streeter hasn’t had clients whose homes sat unsold for years because they couldn’t pass the “Netflix test,” i.e., streaming a movie online without constant buffering. But she does know of someone who had a house for sale off the grid in the Green Mountain National Forest, with no likelihood of ever having electricity, cable or wired internet.
“Their house was half a mile from the north face of Mount Snow,” she says. “These people had the fastest cell and internet service.
It was amazing!
That’s how I sold it.”
Expansion plans could be in the pipeline for a Rutland fine foods business thanks to the arrival of super-fast fibre broadband. Rutland Charcuterie, set up two years ago by businessman Nick Brake, in Braunston, near Oakham, as a specialist producer of salamis and air dried meats, is expected to be “transformed” by the new technology. The company can now benefit from download speeds of up to 80Mbps thanks to the multi-million pound Digital Rutland partnership between Rutland County Council, BT, and Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).
Nick said: “We’re incredibly excited about the opportunities that come with fibre broadband. It’s going to transform the way we operate and how we’re viewed by our customers.
“The internet is crucial to our business in so many ways. In this day and age you simply cannot operate without it it’s the basis of all forms of communication and an essential marketing tool. Most of all it allows us to sell direct to the consumer via our online shop.”
He added: “We set up Rutland Charcuterie because we’re passionate about locally produced fine foods. We currently sell direct to customers at farmers’ markets and food shows, as well as supplying restaurants and delis.
“We also have an online shop and we’re turning to digital media more and more as a way to grow our business and put charcuterie on the map in Britain.
“The internet speeds in Braunston were previously a real source of frustration.
It wasn’t so noticeable when we launched a couple of years ago, but now that everything depends upon it in much larger volumes we’ve been tearing our hair out when things crash or take too long online.”
Around 200 properties in Braunston can now access superfast broadband.
Councillor Tony Mathias, deputy leader of Rutland County Council, said: “Digital Rutland has already connected thousands of homes and businesses to fibre broadband, meaning people can enjoy the benefits associated with faster upload and download speeds.
“There’s still a lot more to come from the project though, with additional areas and villages set to be connected in the coming months.”
Paul Bimson, of BT, said: “Rutland Charcuterie is a great example of how the technology can enable a business to compete on a level playing field with competitors based in more urban areas.”
How can my state of Vermont attract greater numbers of younger people? I d like to kick off a discussion with this post. I m not an expert in the issue, but am learning fast, and hope to learn more, with an eye towards actually changing things. It s a bit of a change of focus for this blog, as I haven t discussed Vermont very much. But I d like to introduce a local aspect.
Forest around the Ripton school
I m asking with a particular interest, as Vermont s demographics1 are graying, and this will pose a problem for public schools, the labor force, and the tax base. Our childbirth rate is second-lowest in the US2. This demographic challenge is also a more widespread, global issue, as many nations (Japan, Canada, Finland, Italy, etc) are experiencing a similar problem: declining numbers of young people, growing numbers of seniors3.*
What would it take for young people to move to Vermont?**
To begin with, the situation. Vermont is a small state with a smaller population (about 600,000). It can be outrageously cold in winter for people who aren t used to it (but summers are very sweet, and autumns splendid). The biggest city, Burlington, is the state s youth magnet; otherwise, it s a very rural state. We have much to attract young people and families, starting with famous natural beauty.
Vermont s agriculture world appeals to those who want to get in touch with their food systems. This ties into our fierce environmental commitment, which can4 connect with a generation rising amidst concerns of global warming and sustainability. Our strong communities, including actual, for-real town meetings, can speak to those seeking strong social ties. Our colleges and universities attract 18-to-22-year-olds for studies. And we re the second-healthiest state in the US, according to one study5. What can we do to make those virtues work? What can we change?
Here are some ideas I ve found through research:
- Improving public transportation. Public transportation is too weak6. It s very good in the immediate Burlington area, but falls off in the rest of the state, requiring cars for everyone a major disincentive to increasingly car-less Millenials. We could grow our bus lines.
- Building more housing. It s famously hard to find rental properties in Vermont.
- Make social opportunities for people under 50. For example, this group7 connects young workers in the city of Rutland.
- Creating jobs and businesses. Vermont can do a better job of incubating startups8 and support young entrepreneurs. The renewable energy sector is one which could9 grow and be very consistent with Vermont values.
- Creating better jobs. Some young people leave the state to make more money10.
- Aggressively improve our technology. We re doing poorly at attracting generations reared on the digital world when our broadband is unimpressive (better than it was!) and cell phone coverage spotty.
Our social media usage is low. Vermont often appears as an anti-technological place, which appeals only to a small number of people. If we reverse that view and make our technology base viable, we can attract folks who rely on tech. Indeed, Vermont could be a great telecommuting base, if our infrastructure supports it. (One politician agrees11)
- Retool public education for 21st-century work. I hear complaints that Vermonters lack the skills necessary for modern jobs (see point 1 here12 for example).
- Improve support for public higher education. Vermont contributes far less to public colleges and universities than most other states, and college graduates sometimes struggle under debt loads. What if we increased tuition support, or forgave13 loans for graduates who remain in state?
Here s a good audio discussion with young Vermonters14, offering a wide range of views.
This is a huge challenge for Vermont, especially as it connects with so many aspects of our culture and personal lives. The urgency of it is one reason I m running for the local school board, to be honest. What do you think?
*There s nothing wrong with large numbers of seniors per se. Seniors are awesome. It s when coupled with shrinking younger populations that issues arise.
Issues such as: supplying a workforce to carry out the economy s functions, when older folks retire; having that workforce pay income taxes to feed the state s budget; declining population overall; etc.
**I think there exists an opposed political stance, which is that Vermont should not attract and retain young people. It may be implicit only, or just very quiet, but perhaps a number of Vermonters view the state as better off without Millenials. Maybe they want the state to be a kind of intentional community for retirees.
I d love to hear more from them, if that s an actual argument.
- ^ demographics (quickfacts.census.gov)
- ^ second-lowest in the US (www.businessinsider.com)
- ^ seniors (www.vermontseniors.org)
- ^ can (www.greenmtn.edu)
- ^ according to one study (healthvermont.gov)
- ^ Public transportation is too weak (www.mychamplainvalley.com)
- ^ this group (www.rutlandyoungprofessionals.org)
- ^ incubating startups (vtrural.org)
- ^ could (www.wcax.com)
- ^ to make more money (www.burlingtonfreepress.com)
- ^ agrees (www.mattdunne.com)
- ^ here (www.mattdunne.com)
- ^ forgave (www.wptz.com)
- ^ Here s a good audio discussion with young Vermonters (digital.vpr.net)
- ^ Nancy White (www.fullcirc.com)