The end of what's best been a lukewarm, pun intended, ski season may seem like a strange time to consider buying a ski condo, but it's actually not: As is often the case with many vacation homes, buying during or just before the peak season—in the late fall when anticipation is high for snow-season fun, or in January when the slopes are full—usually means more competition and less opportunity to negotiate. Wait toward the waning weeks of the season (read: now) or later, and you'll likely have more leverage.
This winter's disappointing snowfall in particular could very well induce motivated sellers to cut prices, opening opportunies for buyers. "The winter that we had was really sparse, and sellers are more negotiable now," says Wayne Bunce of Bunce Realty, a real estate firm in the Windham, New York area, site of Windham Mountain. "If someone wanted to purchase in this area, now would be a better time than the fall, when it'll get busier and harder to negotiate." Adds Alison Cummings, managing broker at TPW Real Estate in Stratton, Vermont, who says of the mild winter and its after-effects on the market: "You’re going to have the best choices and inventory right now."
As with most matters real estate, deciding if you ought to buy in the first place doesn't depend merely on the weather. Here's what else to consider:
Ski condo or ski house?
To be clear: There's not much difference between a ski house and a typical vacation getaway except for location. Ski houses are generally on or near mountains that have ski resorts (hence the name), and are often chalets, which are structures with steep rooflines that go past the walls, enabling rain and snow to fall off the sides with ease. (It's extremely useful in areas that get tons of snow; real estate website Moving Mountains has plenty more information on chalets.)
With ski houses, as with typical houses, you're in charge of all the upkeep yourself, including what's beyond the home's four walls: snow removal, yard work, grounds maintenance, and trash removal, all of which add to the usual expenses of your mortgage and property taxes. (You could, of course, clear the snow and landscape your yard all on your own.)
Ski condominiums, on the other hand, are part of what's known as associations—they're similar to co-ops in the city. Property owners are charged condo association fees (something akin to maintenance charges at co-ops), which typically cover external upkeep. "The people who own it don't have to cut grass, don't have to worry about snow plowing or snow shoveling, [and do] no exterior painting," says Bunce. "That's all part of the association fees." (Dues usually run in the hundreds of dollars. Sometimes the amount is pegged to the size of the home, and other times, they're all the same.) Often, condos—which are usually either multi-floor townhouses or one-floor apartments—come with shared amenities, such as a pool, club house, or a tennis court.
Buying for yourself or investment purposes?
It's also important to figure out how often you'll be using your ski home, Bunce says. "Are you planning to spend time throughout the year, or are you just skiers? If you're just skiers, I say get a condo." Given how little time you'll be spending at your getaway during the off-season, it may be best to live where exterior maintenance is minimal. But if, like many New Yorkers, you dream of owning a spread where you experience a more rural existence, a house with some acreage may be a better fit. "If you want to spend time here in the summer or spring, you probably should get a house so you can enjoy the scenery with some trees and woods and views, and you won't feel like there's someone next to you," he says.
Your dreams of playing short-term landlord will also shape your buying plans. If you plan to post your ski home on AirBnB, VRBO or HomeAway so others can enjoy it (and you can reap some rental income as well), the closer to the mountain, the better. "If the goal is to rent the unit, you would want the area to be busy and accessible to large demographics," advises Cummings. "Stratton is popular because of its location within a three-and-a-half-hour drive from a lot of metropolitan areas. There’s also a lot to do here if you’re not skiing."
Stratton and Okemo (another ski resort in nearby Ludlow, Vermont), for instance, are 30 minutes from Manchester, Vermont, a major destination for outlet shopping and the site of historic spots such as Hildene, the estate of Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, as well as plenty of lakes and summer camps; they're likely to lure vacationers in warmer months, too, opening up possibilities for rental income year-round.
If buying outright—and the cash outlay that comes with that kind of decision—seems daunting, you may want to think about fractional ownership (aka timeshares). Many ski resorts (such as Okemo, and Deer Valley or Park City in Utah) offer buyers condos to use for a quarter (13 weeks) or even an eighth (6.5 weeks) of a year. Because you're only there for part of the time, you only pay part of the total cost. According to BestSkiProperty.com, some fractional ownership setups let you trade days or weeks you can't use at your place for a stint somewhere else, a helpful perk if you like to vacation in different spots.
Ski in or ski out?
One possibly major consideration: distance to the ski lifts. "If an owner wants to rent out their unit, they're pretty much guaranteed renters if they have a ski-in, ski-out," Bunce says. Ski-in, ski-out means just that: You can easily get to one of the ski lifts or trails. It's about 50 percent difference in terms of how much you can rent your place for, he explains. (A 1,500-square-foot three-bedroom might rent for $25,000 for the season, while a house of the same size a drive away might get about half.) And, he adds, you'll be able to sell it faster and for more money. After all, there are only so many ski-in, ski-out lots on a mountain, so they do come at a premium. (Then again, you'll have to pay more to buy this type of property, too.)
In Vermont, says Cummings, you're likely to get more money when it comes time to sell if you have a place right on the mountain: "You’re going to get the biggest price for ski on and ski off, particularly if it’s well-maintained."
If ski-in, ski-out isn't an option, consider properties that sit on shuttle lines or run shuttles directly from their condo associations. "We have major parking challenges at Stratton (Mountain) ... so having a shuttle is huge," says Cummings. "The shuttle drops you off right at the ski area. Having that accessibility is above and beyond the value you can possibly put on it."
Mortgage or all-cash?
"If you're buying a timeshare, you're not going to get a mortgage; banks don't lend for that," says Rolan Shnayder of Citizens Bank. In that case you have several options—paying cash, going for an unsecured person-to-person personal loans on sites like Prosper and Lending Club (which are not tax deductible), or financing directly through the developer (at high interest rates).
But if you're buying a mountain-side apartment or house, the banks are still an option. "It doesn't matter if it's a ski home or a summer home, it's still considered a second home (and that's even if you rent your primary home). Your down payment will be about five percent higher, but your mortgage rate and amount you need to qualify are the same as a primary home," says Shnayder. (If you move there full-time, you can probably refinance at a lower rate.)
As is the case with a primary home, debt-to-income ratio is of utmost importance in qualifying for a loan. "Your primary mortgage payment will be part of your debt-to-income ratio calculation plus the new mortgage payment for the vacation home. Lenders put a lot of emphasis on a borrower’s DTI (debt to income) ratio because it tells them if the borrower will be able to handle the mortgage payment," says mortgage expert Jason van den Brand, CEO of Lenda.
Simple or complicated taxes?
Another decision deal-breaker or maker: taxes. Jonathan Medows, a NYC-based certified public accountant, says as with your primary home, you can write off the real estate taxes and mortgage interest [on a ski house]—with one caveat: "Your deduction is generally limited if all mortgages used to buy, construct, or improve your first home (and second home if applicable) total more than $1 million ($500,000 if you use married filing separately status)." That million-dollar limit isn't much if you factor in your mortgage on a NYC apartment which, on its own, could already be testing that million-dollar boundary. If you owe more than that, you can't write off anything above $1 million. (Renters, of course, have more room to work with since a ski property will be the only mortgage.) And he adds: "You can also generally deduct interest on home equity debt of up to $100,000 ($50,000 if you're married and file separately) regardless of how you use the loan proceeds."
Deductions may be limited, too, depending on how many days you rent out your place. If you have renters for more than 14 days, it's more like a business and you'll need to keep records of how many days you've leased it out, and what expenses you've incurred doing so, including paying a property manager if you don't want to, or can't, handle tenants and turnover chores such as house cleanings.
And if you make more than approximately $250,000 a year, you may be hit with the alternative minimum tax, which, as its name implies, is a substitute tax sometimes levied on high-income earners, according to Marketwatch, decimating any tax benefits you get from paying property taxes.
Short answer: You'll need to diligently check with your accountant or tax attorney before making any vacation-buying moves, especially if you're doing so for a perceived tax benefit.
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