At higher elevations, the air is thinner and so are the second-home-buying opportunities. However, in this recession, a brief window of affordability has opened for entry-level homes.

This is good news for people like me.

I live in Arizona, and out of the 20 families on my street about a quarter of them own second homes and they are all located in mountain communities, not at beaches.

I don’t know everybody on my street, but of the folks I do talk to on a regular basis, one has a vacation home in Purgatory, Colo., and two have second homes in the White Mountains of Arizona, where the elevation in cabin areas stands about 7,200 feet above sea level.

This is the Sunbelt phenomenon.

The immediate, Pavlovian response when considering where to go for a regular summer vacation was always "the beach," whether that stretch of sandy earth was by an ocean or a lake. But, over the last 50 years, this country’s migration patterns have been from the colder Midwest and Northeast to the warmer Sunbelt states. People are realizing if you now live in a warm weather climate, why would you want a second home at a beach? To bake in the sun? You can do that at the pool in your backyard.

For us heat denizens, mountain locales are multi-seasonal getaways. In the summer, they are good places to flee the heat and since many mountainous second-home locales, at least in the West, are located near ski resorts, it’s a place to go for winter sports. Indeed, multiple generations of families often meet at winter cabins for Christmas or New Year’s vacations.

Another bonus for folks like me living in the Arizona desert or those on the Florida Gold Coast: a trip to the mountains to view the fall colors is always a terrific, short vacation.

In the second-home market, the argument for a beach property was that it would always be a good investment because of the limited supply of undeveloped beach property left in the United States. Ever go shopping for a beach property? Invariably, your agent will say something to the effect, "God only built so much beachfront." I can’t tell you how many times I heard some variation of that theme.

In an odd way, the same argument holds true for mountain resort properties, although at first glance this wouldn’t appear to be the case.

When you arrive at your winter vacation spot and look around, what you see are deep-forested mountains stretching as far as your eyes can see. The natural beauty of the landscape probably is a hundred miles deep. Plenty of room for another development, right?

Actually, no.

Most mountain resorts areas — even those attached to ski resorts — are surrounded by national forests and parks, where there is no private development. In addition, strict environmental standards are usually adhered to in mountain communities to protect the land itself, conserve water, limit damage to the forest, or maintain a balance with local wildlife.

All the land that you see is mostly national forest and can’t be developed. …CONTINUED

Let’s take, for example, one of the most beautiful, restrictive and expensive ski resort areas in the country, Jackson Hole, in Teton County, Wyo.

At the peak of the market, before the financial collapse, the median home price in the region had climbed to $1.9 million, and the median price of a condo stood at about $900,000 to $1.1 million, says William Van Gelder, an associate broker with Sotheby’s International Realty in Jackson Hole.

Part of the reason why homes are so expensive in the Jackson Hole area is that there is only a limited supply of land for building new residences.

"Of the roughly 3 million acres in Teton County, only 3 percent is privately held," Van Gelder explains. "Of that, 1.5 percent has been deeded to conservation easements. There’s a very finite amount of land in Jackson Hole that can ever be developed."

Currently, the Teton County government is considering an update of their zoning plan. The Jackson Hole region counts a population of 16,000 to 20,000, and if the government simply went bonkers for new development, which would require one of the current large ranch holdings to be developed to the highest density possible (which never happens), the population would eventually climb again, but to no more than 35,000 people.

That would be many years down the road, says Van Gelder.

Limited development doesn’t mean you can escape the current recession. Essentially, Jackson Hole, like many similar ski locations, has a bifurcated real estate market: the merely expensive and the very expensive.

This past winter, there were only 24 transactions in Jackson Hole, down from 95 transactions in 2008 and about twice that number at peak in 2006. That has affected pricing, but only for the merely expensive residences.

On the very expensive level, the extremely wealthy may have experienced a bit of reduction in their investment portfolio, but when they want to buy they still do — and with cash.

Down at the "merely expensive" level, in one Jackson Hole development a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condominium was selling for an average of $550,000. That price has fallen about $200,000.

That’s a price line that won’t outlast the recession; it will ski lift to higher elevations very quickly. After all, God, in cooperation with federal and state governments, only created so much mountain property for sale.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books, including "After the Fall: Opportunities and Strategies for Real Estate Investing in the Coming Decade."


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