A sign marking a property sold by Mooers Realty in Houlton. Houlton, along with the rest of Aroostook County, is seeing high levels of real estate deals as city-dwellers from out of state find themselves leaving urban areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Before this year, Aroostook County was not exactly a prime destination for prospective homebuyers across the country. 

Tucked away in northern Maine, it is hours away from major cities such as Portland or Boston. Good-paying jobs, outside of traditional farming and agriculture, were scarce. The population was declining and aging, as younger residents quickly left after school to look for work elsewhere. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic, like it has for so many other things, has rapidly changed all that. 

“There are more buyers now than there are homes,” said Jim Shaw, owner of Northern Maine Realty, which has operations in both Houlton and Presque Isle. “That’s very exciting.” 

Prior to the outbreak, Americans were increasingly becoming more urbanized. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, around 80 percent of Americans lived in urban areas.

But since the pandemic, many facets of city life, such as networking, live entertainment and unique dining experiences have either been effectively shut down or drastically reduced, making cities lose some of their appeal. Combine that with a much lower cost of living and the sudden prevalence of being able to work remotely, and suddenly places like The County seem like quite an attractive location. 

“What always used to be the obstacle was ‘you don’t have enough high-paying jobs’ but you don’t need to make a lot of money if everything is cheaper,” said Andrew Mooers, owner of Houlton-based Mooers Realty. “You’re in a lower tax bracket. That means Uncle Sam goes easier on you. So I think we actually are better off up here because it doesn’t cost a fortune to ensure a place [to live].” 

“Low interest rates are what’s driving the market, as well as pressure from outside,” Shaw said of the recent boom in sales. 

States across the country which have traditionally commanded the highest prices for real estate, such as New York, California and Florida, now see themselves as the biggest hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks, with each of those states reporting more than 400,000 cases and 10,000 deaths due to the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. In Aroostook County, which spans the combined size of Rhode Island and Connecticut, less than 40 total cases have been reported as of Aug. 25. 

Fred Dobbs, who owns Dobbs Realty in Caribou, estimated that 90 percent of the new homes have been sold to out-of-state buyers. 

“Most of the phone calls coming in, if you look at the numbers, they’re all from out of state,” Dobbs said. “If you look around, you see more out-of-state license plates up here than you would ever normally see in the summer for tourists coming in.” 

Regarding his own real estate business, Dobbs said, “It’s the hottest market I’ve seen in 23 years of doing this.” 

Mooers believes that Aroostook, with its culture of hard work and its spaced out areas, is a uniquely suited location to enduring the pandemic. 

“It’s just a whole different survival attitude,” Mooers said. “Maybe it’s the winters we go through, it helps temper you or something. I think we’re just happier people up here, more content. And with COVID, it just makes you realize we are lucky to be up here.”