The Berkshires Aren't Boston
The Berkshires are not Boston. Thank goodness for that! When Governor Baker recently banned all non-essential travel on January 27th in response to the dire warnings from the national weather service of the winter storm "Juno" (when did they start giving names to snow events?), he did so for the entire state of Massachusetts. What he didn't know concerning The Berkshires is that Boston and most of the eastern half of the state are a different world apart from The Berkshires. We love it that way too.
Here is what Boston is famous for among other things: traffic congestion, The Big Dig, Logan International Airport, crowds, an antiquated public transit system and lots of colleges. The one thing we can ALL be proud of about Boston is really located in Foxborough, our Patriots football team!
Here's what The Berkshires are famous for: gorgeous scenery, music, dance, art, theater, boating, skiing, hiking, golf, tennis, biking, ease of access and ease of getting around (whether walking or driving, great farm to table fresh local foods, four colleges, and essentially a friendly, safe, healthy and clean environment. The exception to the rule of low traffic is getting out of Tanglewood after a James Taylor or Yo Yo MA concert. We also get around just fine regardless of the amount of snow or rain and we are spared the extremes from storms that can rip through the coastal areas of our state. No sink holes here since we sit on solid rock, not sand like Florida.
I am constantly amazed and puzzled by all the people who would choose a congested, noisy pressured city life over a country and small town life such as we enjoy here in the Berkshires. Williamstown MA, home of Williams College, has just one traffic light and many Berkshire county towns have no traffic lights at all.
High air quality, low pollution, great schools, solid family life, social and cultural life are all tops here in The Berkshires. While a big city offers higher paying jobs it also requires a higher cost of living overall. Some folks choose to live in suburbs outside of Boston and spend an hour or more a day commuting by car or public transit. My commute is 8 minutes on average and usually I don't even have to stop at the one sensor activated light.
Everything one needs is right here in Williamstown from a great hardware store to an independent movie theater, to college events, to a wide variety of gourmet restaurants. We have a Dunkin' Donuts Shoppe and a Subway Sandwich franchise for fast food lovers.
Want to enjoy the benefits of living in The Berkshires but fearful of city withdrawal? No problem, hop on a bus, train or in your car and in a matter of 3 hours be in downtown Boston or NYC. Spend four hours traveling to get to Montreal, Canada. I know once you've moved here, if you do make the trek to the city, you will be all too eager to get home again and unwind.
What intrigues me is that city dwellers will purchase a country home here in the Berkshires just as soon as they can afford one but we full time residents get to enjoy our "second home" as our first home all the time.
Life is Good in The Berkshires, really good but please don't tell too many people about it because guess what, we really like it just the way it is.
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High End Sales, Williamstown and Berkshire County
The first million-plus sale in the county was recorded in 1996 and three years later the first one in Williamstown. In the ensuing years there have been a total of 280 countywide, of which 21 have sold in Williamstown. Three each sold in 2002, 2007 and 2012 with none in 2013 and one so far in 2014. Countywide, the number of million-plus sales peaked in 2004 and 2006 at 31 each down to 21 in 2013.
Meanwhile the inventory of high-end real estate listings reached around 14 or 15 in recent years in Williamstown and 83 countywide. At the current rate that means 14 years of million-dollar inventory in Williamstown and four year's worth in the county as a whole.
What has happened in the high end of the market?
Million-dollar sales are here to stay and in fact the top-end selling prices will also tend to edge higher as well. Let's face it, we have some fabulous real estate in Berkshire County and people keep adding more as well so I foresee a continued market for high-end properties, as with all price ranges of course, but at a muted level in the near term as the economy works its way back out of the great recession of 2008-09.
Berkshire County has lost population over the years, everyone knows that is due to a combination of job shrinkage as well as retirements to sunnier climes. The Berkshires will never lose its most valuable assets, however, and those we consider to be our scenery, our cultural assets (which keep growing) and our more reasonable pace of life as compared to the major cities in the Northeast. No one can take these treasures from us and these are the attractions that will continue to draw second-home owners who will purchase our high-end real estate.
We are blessed with a relatively benign climate where hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and persistent deep snows and sub-zero temperatures are either non-existent or of a moderate level so as to produce little if any damage. We are typically spared the most severe effects of hurricanes, we manage our snow easily, and the region is not expecting any earthquake or volcanic activity, at least none that would cause damage or injury.
Thanks to our relatively sparse populations we don't have concerns for the urban problems of civil unrest, traffic snarls, municipal worker strikes, breakdowns in public transit, major utility failures and we are not likely to be a target we hope, for any sort of terror act. This is why, as an example, the Clarks built the world renowned Clark Art Institute here, because they wanted to house their collection far from any potential nuclear strike zone (this was during the height of the Cold War with Russia) and yet be within a reasonable distance from New York City and Boston.
In short, the Berkshires are a fabulous place to live or have a second home and these are among the many reasons our second-home market will remain strong in the years to come and we hope, return at some point to the level of activity it once reached. Perhaps we need to wait a few more years for a more complete economic recovery and perhaps there are some listings which are priced too ambitiously and which would do better to be under the million-dollar level but of one thing we can be certain, million-dollar sales are here to stay in the Berkshires.
Paul Harsch, president and founder of Harsch Associates, a Berkshire County based real estate brokerage firm, is a licensed real estate broker in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, serving a diverse residential, business, commercial and land client base for 40 years.
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