Mark Lipscombe (left) and his wife Nina stand in front of their residence, located on Main Street in Houlton. Mark, who is from Australia, and Nina, who is from Tennessee, are an example of the newcomers arriving to Aroostook County following the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — No one could have guessed before the COVID-19 pandemic that Maine’s most rural and least populated counties would become the hottest real estate markets in the state.

But that is exactly what has happened. Aroostook, Washington and Piscataquis counties have seen an influx of new homeowners who are reversing decades-long population drains from rural Maine. Newcomers are leaving the more coronavirus-dense areas of the country and snapping up real estate in the less populated reaches of the state, taking advantage of the lower cost of living and market prices compared to where they have been.

Maine as a whole has seen a small increase, approximately 9 percent, in the number of real estate properties sold during the pandemic, and the number of out-of-state buyers has increased from 25 to 33 percent over that time frame. But nowhere has the growth been more pronounced, and the number of out of state arrivals larger, than the rural areas of northern Maine.

“Eight out of ten people used to have to go to the city to live because that’s where the jobs were,” Andrew Mooers, owner of Mooers Realty in Houlton, said. “You didn’t have a choice. With telecommuting, you’ve got a choice.”

The latest upturn in the real estate trend in Aroostook County is in stark contrast to the past several decades in which the population has been slowly declining and young people have been moving south for better education and job opportunities. It’s no longer necessary to live in the city to have access to shopping and entertainment thanks to innovative local internet companies, such as Houlton’s Pioneer Broadband, which provide everything needed to conduct work or school remotely, order products and stream content.

Aroostook County’s population decline has been occurring for decades. In 1960, the census listed its population as more than 100,000 people. The population has decreased by more than a third since, with the most recent estimate from 2019 at 67,000 people.

But the influx of new property owners could reverse this trend. Data from the Maine Multiple Listing Service, which the state’s real estate brokers rely on to help make appraisals, point to indications that more properties are being sold, fewer are available and prices are going up.

Five years ago, the median sales price for single-family homes in Aroostook was $53,000 and there were more than 1,000 units available. In December 2020, the median sales price has nearly doubled to $97,000, and available single-family units have been reduced by about two-thirds, to just more than 360 units.

“Certainly, if this trend keeps up, I think the population would grow,” Aaron Bolster, president of the Maine Association of Realtors, said. “It’s too new to know if the data will actually reflect an increase in the population or not, but I think there are people that are staying in Maine.”

“We’re basically lower inventory, and they’re selling faster than they’re replenishing,” Mooers said. “Which is wonderful for the seller.”

Mark Lipscombe is one new homeowner who arrived in northern Maine during the pandemic. Originally from Australia, Lipscombe and his wife Nina, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, had aspired to live in the area after stumbling upon it during a cross-continental road trip.

“A few years back, we did a circumnavigation of North America,” said Lipscombe, who now lives in Houlton with Nina and their two middle-school age children. “We were right up through Canada, and came down through northern Maine, and really, really loved the area.”

Lipscombe had recently moved from his home country of Australia to Memphis, with plans to eventually relocate to northern Maine. But the family’s five-year plan to move north became a five-month plan when the COVID-19 pandemic devastated cities such as Memphis.

“We didn’t move here because of COVID, but it accelerated our move,” he said. “But it’s all falling into place, and we really love it here.”

The Lipscombes started County Micro, an IT consultancy business, out of their new home, a red Victorian-style house located on Houlton’s Main Street.

“People have been really awesome and really welcoming,” Mark Lipscombe said. “We set up business here doing managed IT, and we’ve had a really amazing reception.”

The influx of new people to Aroostook County has also meant more work for contractors hired to fix up the homes. Electricians, plumbers and other workers associated with construction have been privy to some of the people coming from other states.

“It’s not 100 percent out of state, but it’s pretty darn close,” said David Harbison, who owns Harbison Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning in Houlton, and has worked on several homes purchased by the new homeowners.

Harbison said he’s seen people from Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, but also from states like California, Washington and Idaho.

“Some people have roots here and are looking to come home,” said Brian Nightingale, a contract electrician who has worked on several of the homes. “Some people are just happy to get away from where they were.”

view of Houlton’s Main Street, located in the downtown near Market Square. The town, along with the rest of Aroostook County, has seen a rise in new homeowners due thanks to people fleeing for rural areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times)

The wide open land and good quality of the soil that make it ideal for farming also draw people to rural areas like Aroostook. Already an area known for its potato production, many people are buying land and farming properties for the “farm-to-table” experience.

“From an out-of-state perspective, people love the fact that the soils are so rich,” Bolster said. “That was a big influential selling feature for The County.”

Many of the people Harbison has seen move to Aroostook tend to be older but not quite retirement age, although he has seen some young people who can work remote jobs or obtain new jobs in The County, he said.

“Most of the folks we have that conversation with, it’s primarily congested areas they’re coming from, and they want to get out,” Harbison said. “Most of those areas are growing hugely in population, and some of it is crime activity they’re trying to get away from.”

Nightingale and Harbison both said they had noticed a slow trickle of people moving in from other states in the past several years, but the pandemic has quickly accelerated the number of people arriving.

The types of homes people are buying also vary. Some are purchasing large homes, such as the Victorian-style home owned by the Lipscombes, while others buy large tracts of land to take advantage of the low prices. Nightingale said he knew of one couple from Florida who purchased a home on East Grand Lake in Orient.

The unknown is whether the new residents will stay or are simply here to ride out the pandemic. Those coming from warmer states like California and Texas may find Aroostook’s long winter, which starts in November and lasts into April, a difficult adjustment. The pandemic also has finally reached Aroostook, with more than 1,000 cases reported since December.

But even increased COVID-19 activity has not deterred people from moving to rural Maine, although the timing is different for some of them. Harbison said some of his newer customers are waiting for the warmer spring months to arrive before moving in.

Mark Lipscombe said the success of his business here prompted him to convince another of his business partners, who is from California, to move to purchase a house on Houlton’s Madigan Street.

“For what we do with IT stuff, the town’s actually got some really great things about it,” he said. “It’s got awesome internet. It’s got cheap utilities. It looks like a good place to settle down and do business.”