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Condos in Vacationland

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Condos aren’t what they use to be, at least not in Maine anyway. Though the first home owners’ association in Maine dates back to the 19th century, Maine’s condominium market has been slow in developing relative to other regions of the country, but that is starting to change.
Mainers have always prided themselves on self-reliance and independence. This kind of thinking, of course, is contrary to some to of the basic selling points of condominium living. Whereas more than 80% of all new residential housing across the country is under some form of home owners association, Mainers have favored unassociated living.
When the initial wave of condominiums hit Maine in the 1980’s, the needs of the people “from away” were the primary marketing target. Back then when one thought of condominiums, the high-rises of Old Orchard Beach or the chalet-style ski condominiums climbing up the region’s mountain slopes came to mind.
Today, Maine’s condominium market is being driven by many of the same factors as other parts of the country, namely, aging baby boomers and empty nesters looking to shed the burdens of a big house. What makes Maine unique is that while the image of Vacationland persists, a new image is steadily growing of fine urban living, safe environments not requiring gated communities, and corporate entrees seeking quality of living for their workforces.
Once-dowdy mill towns like Lewiston or Biddeford are seeing very visible economic progress and large scale condominium projects coming off the drawing boards. Portland has been listed in the top 12 travel destinations in Frommers and Outside Magazine calls it one of the “New American Dream Towns.” 2007 is seeing a record number of cruise ships scheduling Casco Bay as a prime port-of-call.
Portland’s late 1980’s moratorium on developing condominiums near the city’s working waterfront is softening as the economic realities and market forces become more evident. Major condominium projects in Portland’s eastern waterfront neighborhood such as the Village of Oceangate and The Watermark combined with the new nearby hotel complexes are being planned to dovetail with the future Maine State Pier’s cruise ship facility.
This trend to combine Maine’s rich tradition of fine dining and hotel living with the condominium market is not confined to the southern part of the state. Creative entrepreneurs are converting Maine’s inventory of motels, restaurants, and cabin parks into all forms of condominium communities. “Condotel” projects have been springing up from York to Bar Harbor. Mid-coast real estate experts such as CHR Realty/GMAC Real Estate report the coastal areas of Wiscasset, Edgecombe, and Damariscotta are seeing plans for local motel/restaurant facilities being converted to condominiums.
And of course municipalities are taking notice. Drafts of new local ordinances are continuously being placed before selectmen and city councilors to control conversions and their impact on the local citizens and infrastructure. As an example, the town of Wells passed rules controlling when and how many days a condominium complex of former summer rental cabins could be occupied by their owners. One of the purposes was to prohibit new condominium families from sending their children into the local school system.
Perhaps the most interesting trend in Maine’s condominium development is the source of buyers. Even with the influx of new arrivals the real estate industry reports that over 60% of new condominium buyers are locals and they are expecting more than what was offered in the past. Maine’s changing demographics are causing developers to focus less on young families looking for their entry into homeownership and more toward the over-50 population.
This group has more cash available from the sale of their larger home and they want the same or better quality furnishings and interior finishes while downsizing. Older buyers want more customization and flexibility. This is a major change from past condominium projects. Maine’s short summer season does not lend itself to common amenities such as swimming pools and tennis courts found in other parts of the country, but items like club house facilities, ample storage, and all-season walking trails are considered very attractive.
These older, more experienced buyers are demanding more from both the developer and their real estate consultant. They are reading the condominium documents and asking serious questions about the reserve funds on hand and deferred maintenance issues. They want professional property management, something that has been sorely lacking in Maine’s condominium past.
The growth of interest and attendance at CAI sponsored events in Maine is a solid indication of this state’s condominium growth, both in terms of numbers and quality of living. Though Maine will remain an idyllic getaway for many, it is also beginning to live up to its slogan, “The way life should be”.