‘Refugee Buyers’ Add to Surge in Real Estate in County, State

Gillette house sales continue to boom as a result of record-low interest rates and many out-of-state buyers.
Gillette house sales continue to boom as a result of record-low interest rates and many out-of-state buyers.

Gillette house sales continue to boom as a result of record-low interest rates and many out-of-state buyers.


Maurica Hanson had been waiting for a slowdown that never happened. At the start of the pandemic last spring, she figured the real estate market would take a nosedive or at least fall off significantly. It never did.

In fact, the Re/Max real estate agent has stayed busy all summer as house sales continue to tick up. Many of Hanson’s recent buyers were local teachers and others taking advantage of the record-low 2.5% interest rate. Some were first-time buyers while others were multi-generational families with in-laws or parents moving to Gillette.

In July, Re/Max sold 104 homes locally with the bulk, or 32 of those sales, in the starter-home price range of between $150,000 – $199,999. The second highest sales at 19 were in the $200,000 – $249,999 range while 16 were in the higher $300,000 – $349,000 sales bracket. Two were over $500,000.

Given the hit taken by many local businesses and individuals as a result of COVID-19, Hanson was a bit surprised by the healthy sales with the average house price at just under $232,000, according to the same data. The sales began almost as soon as the public health restrictions were eased, and the 14-day visitor quarantine was lifted by Governor Mark Gordon.

While many of the buyers were local, Hanson nonetheless sold several of these properties to out-of-state buyers who have since been coined ‘refugee buyers’ by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). These people are fleeing from urban areas all over the countries, she said, but she’s particularly seen a lot of interest in buyers from both the East and West coasts. That day, Hanson was getting ready to do a virtual showing for a couple in Maine, who told her they were ready “to get away from all the chaos” in their city.

Two 'For Sale' signs lined up on Foothills Blvd in Gillette, WY. Real estate.
Two ‘For Sale’ signs line Foothills Blvd in Gillette as sales within the county remain steady. 

At this point, all evidence is anecdotal given that Wyoming is a non-disclosure state, which means it’s hard to trace the origin address of the buyer.

Regardless, other realtors in Campbell County and other parts of the state can confirm that Wyoming is a hot market with many prospective buyers telling agents that they’re ready to escape the congested cities with high crime, taxes and strict COVID-19 public health restrictions, including relatives in Hanson’s own family in her home state of California. From what she is hearing, the pandemic forced many to reevaluate the quality of their life, particularly a desire for more space and a safer environment in which to raise a family. And with more and more employers encouraging work for home, long commutes and congested areas no longer necessary for many.

Along with properties in the county, they’ve also seen a lot of a sales in the surrounding smaller cities like Upton, Newcastle and Sundance, she said, which was also a bit of a surprise.

Like Hanson, colleague and fellow Re/Max realtor Michael “MG” Stellpflug has likewise stayed busy this summer. And though sales in Gillette are down 8.7% from July of last year, Stellpflug credits the variance to shortages on the supply side.

“Buyer demand is up,” he said. “It’s a seller’s market.”

In a healthy market, he explained, buyer demand is greater with a six-month supply of homes on the market. Right now, supply is just under three months. In other words, homes are in short supply.

Over the past four months, he, too, has seen an influx of out-of-state buyers and recently sold a piece of land in Sundance to a retired couple from California, who anecdotally told him they had chosen Wyoming for space and less strict gun laws.

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“They said they were looking for more freedom and fewer restrictions,” he said. “They just wanted to get a gun safe and live free and were tired of their laws always changing.”

Other California buyers have not been as accepting of Wyoming’s conservative values and relatively lenient regulations, he said, recounting a story about one couple who refused to go inside to view a house after seeing an American flag waving in the front yard.

As a veteran who served several tours in the Army abroad, that particular attitude does not sit well with him. He’s pretty protective of his home state, he said, and doesn’t mind telling out-of-staters to not “California his Wyoming.”

Overall all, though, the majority of out-of-state buyers he’s talked to are flocking to the Cowboy State because of Wyoming’s conservative leanings, particularly from places still on lock down. This summer, he’s sold houses across all age ranges from a Colorado guy in his 20s transferring to a satellite office in Gillette to retirees and young families from California, Oregon and Washington.

And despite the slowdown in the energy sector, he thinks Campbell County still has a lot of appeal for workers interested in landing a higher-wage mining or oil field job, some with sign-on bonuses or relocation offerings.

“It’s a great place for a person without a college education to find a high-paying job and make a nice life,” he said.

For many coming from congested urban areas, Wyoming’s relatively low housing and land prices are attractive to homeowners who have been priced out of their market, he noted.

“Their money goes a lot further in Wyoming.”

The surge of refugee buyers seems to be trending in other counties, too, particularly in Cody and Sheridan, who have both seen record land and house sales over the course of the summer.

The secret is out, according to Karen Chase, marketing director for The Powder Horn, an exclusive golf community in Sheridan.

“Since COVID, so many more people want to call Wyoming home,” Chase said.

They’ve seen a boom in both their vacation rentals and house sales both at The Powder Horn and throughout the county.

“We’re seeing buyers from Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California,” echoed Judy Ford, sales/vacation rentals manager at The Powder Horn and also president of the Sheridan County Board of Realtors.

Ford has been surprised by the same-day offers and bidding wars on properties with an asking price of $600,000 and higher.

Like other realtors, their evidence in anecdotal, though both Ford and Chase say they are hearing from buyers a desire to escape the hustle and bustle of larger city life as well as fallout from the coronavirus with schools still closed in many states.

Ford just sold a home t0 a California family moving to Sheridan because they want their kids back in school. Once schools reopen back home, they said they plan to return and keep the house as a vacation rental.

Likewise, in Cody, another town blessed with space and prime mountain views, properties are selling swiftly.

Rick Brasher, broker/owner of Coldwell Banker Antlers Realty in Park County, said he and his 11 agents have also stayed busy since the onset of the pandemic. Typically, July is his slowest month but not so this summer where he estimates sales are up 35% over last year. Like the others, most of the sales are from out-of-state buyers. Home construction, too, is at an all-time high, Brasher added, with one builder he spoke to being about four houses out.

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Similarly, Cheyenne and Casper are also seeing record residential house sales.

Mistie Wood, realtor and president of the Cheyenne Board of Realtors, has been surprised by the healthy market in Laramie County. In her 15 years of selling, she’s never been this busy. Just as in other parts of the state, she’s seeing a lot of buyers from Colorado and the West coast.

“People are literally fighting for properties,” she said, “It’s crazy. I can’t really believe it myself.”

Likewise, Josh Kalinowski with Coldwell Banker Legacy Group in Casper said their residential home sales are up 5% over last year, from $534 million to $560 million. Many of these buyers are coming from outside of the state.

“A lot of lifestyles have changed as a result of the pandemic,” he said. “A lot of people are wanting more space and freedom and are making geographic changes, too.”

It will be interesting to see where they sit fourth quarter, he noted, when demand supersedes supply and there’s a slowdown.

Many refugee buyers are drawn to Wyoming's wide open spaces, low crime and quality of life.
Many refugee buyers are telling realtors they are drawn to Wyoming’s wide open spaces, low crime and quality of life.

The exodus to Wyoming precedes a Sept. 10 SmartAsset survey that ranked the Cowboy State as the best state for home buyers. SmartAsset is an online financial technology company that assists customers with financial advice, including home sales.

July 2020 Gillette, WY Market Outlook provided by Remax Professionals.
July 2020 Gillette Market Outlook provided by Re/Max Professionals.

The sixth-annual survey compared data from 50 states across 10 metrics, including median price for square foot, home value appreciation, ratio of home value to income as well as other variables.

Also ranking in the top five spots in the survey were Idaho, Indiana, Utah and New Hampshire, respectively. Falling from last year’s top five spots were South Dakota and Montana, which didn’t even make this year’s top 10.

Wyoming, which ranked in fifth place on the same survey in 2019, placed in the top 20 for eight of the 10 metrics, ranking particularly well for its low property taxes and recent home value appreciation. In 2018, the median annual property taxes paid by homeowners were $1,372, per the survey findings. With regard to home appreciation value, the median value per square foot rose by 5.6% between January of 2019 and this year.

Some parts of Wyoming, however, aren’t seeing the record-high numbers.

Home sales in Sweetwater County, for example,  have remained steady sales but not quite the boom f0und in other counties, according to Artha Smith with Coldwell Banker in Rock Springs. She said that residential sales have been steady since March, but slower than past years.

“It’s definitely not booming,” she said, “but it’s been more active than one might expect.”

Jennifer is a Wyoming transplant who can’t imagine living anywhere else. She comes to Outliers with more than a decade of community reporting experience from publications around the state. For story ideas and tips, contact Jen at jckocher@mcllc.net.