If you were trying to buy a home in Maine in 2020, you needed a pile of money, a dash of creativity or a dose of luck.

The state’s residential real estate market had a record-breaking year in 2020 despite economic hardships faced by many Mainers because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A total of 19,921 single-family homes changed hands last year, easily surpassing the 2019 total of 18,140 to become the largest volume ever recorded by the Maine Association of Realtors, which started keeping track of data in 1998.

“It was definitely impressive,” said Aaron Bolster of Allied Realty in Skowhegan and incoming president of the association. “The numbers are going to be hard to keep achieving because there’s just not the number of homes available. So there will come a time when the demand will be there but the supply is just short.”

The median sales price also reached a record high of $256,000, according to figures released Friday by Maine Listings, a subsidiary of the Maine Association of Realtors. That’s an increase of nearly 14 percent from last year. The median indicates half of the homes sold for more money during the year and half sold for less.

In December alone, sales rose 31.5 percent and the statewide median price jumped more than 15 percent over the same month in 2019, to $270,000.

Nationally, December sales climbed 22.8 percent over December 2019, according to the National Association of Realtors, which pegged the median sales price at $314,300. In the Northeast, monthly sales rose 27.4 percent, with the median price up to $362,100.

Bolster said low interest rates for mortgages, coupled with Maine’s rural geography and controlled handling of COVID-19 outbreaks relative to the rest of the country, made the state an attractive place to buy a home. The emergence of remote work and the state’s abundant recreational opportunities also contributed to increased demand.

One in three sales have gone to out-of-state buyers since the pandemic began, up from one in four.

“We expect 2021 to remain strong,” he said, “with buyers searching for their new home as a long-term financial investment and a quality-of-life investment.”

Bolster also noted that a flourishing housing market typically coincides with a period of low unemployment and job growth. That clearly has not been the case over the past 10 months, since the pandemic unleashed a wave of economic destruction and uncertainty, particularly in Maine’s hospitality and restaurant industry.

While some households are prospering, others continue to suffer.

“I think the first-time homebuyers are struggling right now,” he said. “Multiple offers aren’t usually favorable to somebody trying to get into their first house.”

Colin Wagner of South Portland considers himself fortunate to be a homeowner, after more than four years of renting. He closed on a three-bedroom house of 1,000 square feet on Christmas Eve, ending an eight-month search.

At 30, Wagner had only passing knowledge of friends who had bought homes the previous year at or under the asking price. When he made his first offer, in June, there were 39 others for a modest home that sold for $37,000 above asking price in an all-cash deal.

“That was a little disheartening,” he said. “I was like, ‘I can’t swing that.’ ”

As three more offers all fell short, Wagner moved into the basement of his sister’s home in Scarborough after his lease expired in September. He planned to stay only for a few weeks, but couldn’t find a reasonable place to rent. His brother-in-law and two young nieces welcomed him, but he still felt like a burden.

Two barking beagles ended his drought. On a Wednesday in early November, the dogs (Lindsay and Riley) saw an unfamiliar truck in their Thornton Heights neighborhood and raised a commotion. Their owner, Alyssa Dumond of Keller Williams, is Wagner’s real estate agent. She looked out the window to see a For Sale sign being erected.

Dumond quickly noted the listing agent, made a call, and snapped a couple of photos. She had sold a similar home, knew the layout, and within hours had worked with Wagner to present an above-asking offer set to expire that same evening, when the home was scheduled to enter the Multiple Listing Service. After a bit of haggling, they were under contract by 10 p.m.

“Which was the only way it could have worked out,” said Wagner, a software engineer. “We made a hard-and-fast offer and they were motivated to sell.”

Dumond said her bonus is that Wagner now lives three houses away.

“I work with a lot of first-time homebuyers and this market is so tough for them to compete in,” Dumond said. “I’m just happy that we were able to find him a place to call home. He never gave up hope that we’d get it done.”

Kelly Marx and her son Eli take in Big Bend National Park in Texas. They are traveling the country in a 28-foot recreational vehicle they named Bob after she sold her home in Maine for $30,000 above the asking price. Photo courtesy of Kelly Marx

Ashley Sites discovered that creativity and a personal touch can make a difference in an overheated market. She and her husband have a 5-year-old daughter and planned to expand their family, so they wanted to move off a busy road in North Yarmouth while staying in the same school district.

“I had an image of pushing a stroller through a neighborhood and my daughter biking safely next to me,” said Sites, a graduate student nearing completion of her master’s degree in clinical social work. “We put one offer on a place and someone outbid us drastically. We knew we weren’t going to win any bidding wars.”

Sites knew which neighborhoods appealed to her. Coupled with some research of the tax assessor’s database in Cumberland, she made a list of houses that might belong to older couples, or be in need of repair or that were rentals. Then she wrote a personal letter describing her family, their hopes, and even their dog, Huckleberry, and mailed them to 25 different homeowners.

Months went by with no response – it turns out her husband mistakenly included the wrong phone number, which had been disconnected – but in late September they discovered a scrap of paper beneath a rock in their front steps.

Barely a week later they were under contract. Soon, they were celebrating Thanksgiving in their 1960s-era ranch with a yard, four bedrooms and friendly neighbors.

“Had we had to go to market, I don’t think we would have been able to get it,” said Sites, who is expecting a baby in April. “Plus, we had a contingency on the sale of our home. So it allowed us to get a home when we couldn’t be as competitive as some people.”

On the other side of the equation, sellers are reaping windfalls from the sharply rising market.

Kelly Marx, a nurse anesthetist, sized up the environment in late summer and decided to make a move. As a single mom, she had a son entering first grade and parents as backup childcare providers who were older and unable to help because of coronavirus precautions.

On the market for a week before its first showing, the home in Scarborough received three offers, all with escalation clauses, and sold for $30,000 above the asking price. Marx used the proceeds to help purchase a 28-foot Winnebago View recreational van, pulled her son out of school, and in October they hit the road.

They have explored barrier islands in Maryland, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Everglades and the Gulf Coast. They spent the holidays in Texas with her brother. The Grand Canyon is on their horizon.

“It’s a learning period for both of us,” Marx said by phone from a campground in Arizona. “My son is enjoying a lot of outside play, and there are other kids here, so it’s semi-normalcy.”

Bob, as her son named the RV, has put on 7,200 miles since they left Scarborough. After spending 10 years in Maine, Marx said she has yet to decide where next to put down roots. She’s 46. Her parents remain here. A less-heated market might be necessary.

“It’ll be hard for me to come back to Maine,” she said. “Now I couldn’t afford to buy my house.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.