A quick look at the 81252 zip code on realtor.com brings up 262 houses for sale where I live. That's one house for every 15 residents in south-central Colorado's Custer County, three hours from Denver. Just a few years ago, Custer County was tagged the third-fastest growing county in the United States.
Check out the one-bathroom shed on a lot in the town of Silver Cliff, population 600, for $53,000, or a trophy home in the country on 200 acres for $3.2 million. Perhaps you prefer the mid-range, 2,000 square-foot, three-bedroom Santa Fe style home in Westcliffe, population 463, with a view of both the Sangre de Cristo range and the backside of Family Dollar, for just $395,000.
Prices may vary widely, but these homes all have one thing in common: Nobody's buying.
A number of things have conspired to swamp the real-estate market in Custer County. First, there's the national economy. Very few people who bought high-end real estate here made or make their money here, and now they're not making money anywhere else, either.
Then there's the local economy, driven in recent years by real-estate sales and construction. Both are down the tubes. Much of the real estate is out of middle-class price range anyway, though, ironically, several low-income housing units recently appeared in Silver Cliff.
Finally, many of the owners of upscale homes have put more money into them than they are likely to get back out. Land is still cheap enough that any high-end buyers are more likely to build their own dream house rather than make do with someone else's. A prime example is a place near mine, with an asking price of $379,000. At that price you get a 3,000 square-foot house, separate barn with living quarters, big detached metal workshop, horse facilities and 35 acres. It's been on the market a long time.
Custer County is determinedly rural. Of its estimated 3,900 residents, 2,800 live outside the town limits of Silver Cliff or neighboring Westcliffe. When you drive into the two-town "Custerplex" from the east, you're greeted by a junkyard, a trailer park, a collection of older houses and enough steel buildings to make you wonder if they're part of some architectural plan for the community. It sure doesn't resemble a resort, though with the Sangre de Cristo mountains towering over the town and the lush Wet Mountain Valley below, it's easy to see how some people might overlook the grunge.
The twin Cliffs sport a motley collection of businesses, including a supermarket, hardware store, three banks, a feed store, newspaper, three gas stations, two liquor stores, several restaurants, the Family Dollar and mom-and-pop stores selling everything from hiking gear to art.
It's difficult to see how any of this would attract a high-end real-estate buyer. Still, realtors in about a dozen separate offices remain ever hopeful that more people are out there looking to buy the Custer County dream. If you visit in summertime, you'd think this is a happening place, with music festivals, outdoor theater and other attractions almost every weekend. The valley is green and the weather is beautiful. Then comes winter, and things basically stop. There's no ski area or other major winter attractions.
Recently, I made a trip to Taos, N.M., to pick up materials for some tile repair at the ranch I manage. Over the years, Taos has been one of my favorite getaway destinations, filled with interesting people and exciting restaurant choices. This time it was clear that something was different. Traffic seemed light, and some of the buildings seemed run-down. For some reason, the hodgepodge of housing and buildings really stuck out more than I remembered, and I noted a number of real-estate signs.
Something nagged at me all the way home. What was it that Taos reminded me of?
Back home, a little research revealed that the Taos area is suffering from a major economic slump. Gross receipts were down 8 percent in late 2009 compared to the previous year. Building was down 24.6 percent, and art sales down 52 percent. Since lodging and food are down almost 5 percent as well, I can't imagine any records are breaking on the ski slopes nearby, either.
A couple of days later it occurred to me that Taos reminded me of Custer County and other places in the West, all of them built on the premise that they were cool places to live. Now, the economy is draining the cool right out of these rural areas, and anybody who bought when times were flush is likely to be experiencing a painful "market correction."
Hal Walter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and ranches in Custer County, Colorado.