AgentMarkets/Economy

These housing markets are hotter than ever. But water is running out

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The Horsetooth Reservoir outside Fort Collins, CO. (Credit: The City of Fort Collins: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortcollinsgov/50134389493)

According to local lore, in the early 1800’s French-Canadian fur traders were caught in a dreadful snowstorm, and, to lighten their load, they buried large amounts of poudre (gunpowder) in a cache (hiding place) along the banks of a river. Today, the Cache la Poudre River runs through modern-day Fort Collins, Colorado. 

Despite its riverside location, Fort Collins, as well as the rest of the state, is reckoning with a limited supply of fresh water. 

“We are running out of water,” Sarah Goodyear, a Coldwell Banker agent in Fort Collins, said. “We need to figure out where the water is going to come from to support this new development.”

Boise, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Austin have grabbed headlines for months now for having attracted homebuyers from across the country. But Colorado has been yet another migration destination for homebuyers eager to explore the outdoors after being cooped up throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s population has grown 15% between 2010 and 2020, to roughly 5.7 million people. As of 2022, the state’s population stands at roughly 5.8 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, but experts predict the population will grow to 8.7 million by 2050. By 2030, Larimer County, where Fort Collins is located, and neighboring Weld County, are expected to grow by 45%.

Front range cities, like Fort Collins, have absorbed the brunt of this growth with individuals and families moving to the state from California, Chicago and New York. With easy access to hiking trails and plenty of job opportunities between Colorado State University and companies like Anheuser-Busch, Hewlett Packard and Otterbox, people have flocked to the area.

“A lot of people love the Northern Colorado lifestyle and all the opportunities for recreation,” Emily Jones, a local The Group Real Estate agent, said. “We are in close proximity to Horsetooth Reservoir. We have a charming downtown, a great trail system and we have the Poudre River, which allows for fishing, rafting and camping.”

And while this population growth has resulted in strong housing market conditions, it has also put a strain on the area’s supply of fresh water.

After World War I, states in the Southwest came together to promote the development of the region. Part of this development was the negotiation of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the flow of the Colorado River between upper-basin states, such as Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, and lower-basin states, which include California, Nevada, and Arizona.

The compact states that the upper-basin states must leave 75 million acre-feet in the river over each decade or an average of 7.5 million acre-feet per year, based on measurements where the river enters northern Arizona at Lee’s Ferry. In addition, lower basin states can “call” for more water during dry times and, thanks to a 1944 international treaty, 1.5 million acre-feet must remain in the river for Mexico.

At the time of the compact’s negotiation, the annual flow of the 1,450 mile long river was estimated to be 15 million acre-feet, but it was later discovered that the river’s annual average flow is closer to 12.5 million acre-feet. 

In mid-June, federal officials, including U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, announced that the seven Colorado River basin states must conserve an additional 2-to-4 million acre-feet of water just to protect critical reservoir levels in 2023.

“We are facing the growing reality that water supplied for agriculture, fisheries, ecosystems, industry and cities are no longer stable due to climate change,” Tanya Trujillo, the Department of Interior Assistant Secretary of Water and Science, said during a presentation at the Conference on Natural Resources at the University of Colorado Law School in mid-June. “Our collective goal is to be able to very quickly identify and implement strategies that will stabilize and rebuild the ecosystem so we don’t find ourselves constantly on the brink of a crisis.”

As the population of upper-basin cities like Fort Collins has increased, and the impact of climate change has become more evident, growing the population in a way that is sustainable for the environment has become top of mind for many, not just federal officials like Trujillo and Touton.

Fort Collins real estate agents who spoke with RealTrends are aware of the region’s natural resource concerns and are working to educate homebuyers on what they can do to improve the situation.

“Water is a hot topic here and we are trying to make sure there is enough for everybody,” Jones said. “In fact, there was a community here that recently put a kibosh on new taps for a short period of time, so builders weren’t able to acquire taps to keep building, but fortunately we are through that now.”

In addition to measures like tap moratoriums, organizations such as Northern Water, which supplies water for much of the Fort Collins area, are educating consumers on what they can do to curb their water usage.

“People are already being much more efficient by installing efficient toilets, washing machines and dishwashers, but the next big area we are trying to find some efficacy gains in people’s landscaping,” Jeff Stahla, Northern Water’s public information officer, said. “We are not running out of water. We are just running out of enough water to do everything that everyone wants to do all at the same time.”

Despite these concerns, agents do not feel that unease over future water availability is having any impact on buyers’ decisions to move to the area.

In April, the median list price for a home in Fort Collins was $550,000, up 15.3% year over year, according to Realtor.com. In addition, the sale to list price ratio was 105.29% and homes spend a median of 34 active days on the market.

“Our housing market is very, very strong,” Jones said. “We are seeing a huge amount of showings when a property first hits the market and in a lot of cases, we are seeing multiple and competing offers.”

Despite these strong conditions, Jones said she has noticed a bit of a dip in the market recently, especially with first time homebuyers and buyers looking for something at a lower price point, whose purchasing power has taken a bit of a hit thanks to the rapidly rising interest rates.

Ben Emslie, a broker at the local RE/MAX Alliance franchise has also noticed this shift.

“About two or three weeks ago it was like a car hitting a brick wall,” Emslie said. “I think it was a combination of rising interest rates, people just being exhausted by the market and families getting busy with end of the school year activities.”

According to Emslie, as a result of this slow down, homes that previously had been getting 10 or more offers are now getting just one or two, and homes that need some improvements, which had also been seeing multiple offers, might be sitting a week or two. But even though these market conditions are not at the same level of intensity as a year ago, Emslie says the housing market in Fort Collins is still in a great place.

“It is still an exhausting market to be a part of, but it is starting to show some signs of normalcy,” he said.

As we head further into summer, agents like Emslie and Goodyear expect things to pick up again, as they would in a typical pre-pandemic year.

“The market right now is pretty similar to pre-pandemic,” Goodyear said. “I think it feels like we are still kind of ramping up, like it is a normal summer selling season, but some of that insanity has died down, at least for now.”

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