From Cottages To Mansions

Study a bit of history and it becomes no surprise that Whidbey Island is a place for vacation houses, not just vacations. When the iconic Deception Pass Bridge was being proposed, one argument for it was as an enticement to the “city folk” down in Seattle. With the bridge in place, they could drive to an island vacation home, no ferry required. Then, the major industries were farming, fishing, and forestry. Now, the military dominates the north end while tourism dominates the south end. Scattered throughout, however, are houses from cottages to mansions that sit on the shore for the water and the views, or nestle into the woods for quiet and solitude. Comparisons to east coast communities like the Hamptons are inevitable; but that’s not all that is here.

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Tip-to-tip, the island may be ~55 miles long, but that only holds ~33,000 households. Island County has lots of public data about the number of houses, the owners, and some interesting slices of history; but it’s easier to glance at the houses that are for sale. In the middle of February, 2018, there were a little less than 200 houses for sale. That’s less than 1% of the houses on the island. It is a thin slice, but it is also a hint that this is a place where people settle in to stay.

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Of those roughly 200 houses, more than half are listed at less than $400,000. That’s cheap compared to “the big city”. Many of the houses were built as second homes, small places near the beach where fishing was a sandy walk away. An era of fishing camps and resorts left a legacy of cabins and bungalows that were big enough for the essentials. Some were so small that, when the resorts closed, the houses were picked up and moved around the island. They can be just the place for fishing, still; but they’re also attractive to artists who care more about whether there’s room on the land for their studio.

At the other end of the range are the other second homes, the ones that may even be third or fourth homes for people to retreat to after world travels or intense careers. Much of the island is zone for five acre parcels, a size that helps spread the population, makes it easier to install septic systems, and provides visual and auditory buffers from the neighbors. A drive along the island’s secondary roads is frequently marked with gravel roads winding out to bluffs or into forested lanes. Of those 200 homes, 10% are million dollar properties, some with more than twenty acres for gardens, horses, or whatever helps someone relax.

Between the two are more conventional homes. Subdivisions happen, everywhere. There are also communities of homes where the lots are more like city lots, but each home has some creativity on display or incorporated inside. It is the sort of variety that perplexes some automated appraisals. It isn’t easy trying to make sense of a small house with a tall atrium, waterfront properties with dance halls, a manufactured home with a foundry out back, or even things like rifle ranges, goat pens, or marvelous gardens and orchards.

The real surprise is how quickly some houses do, and some houses don’t, sell. Take a look at home long some have been on the market. It is the beginning of the year, so a few dozen homeowners kickstarted the market and their moves by already getting those For Sale signs up. But, a third of the houses have been available for less than a month. Beyond a month, there’s a long string of homes waiting for the right owner (though the buyers may be thinking they’re waiting for the right price.) Get out to the far end and find the most uncommon and the some of the most expensive houses. Estates priced at over $2,000,000 are marvelous to look at and dream about, but the number of real buyers drops off quickly.

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Those high-end houses do give a glimpse of that part of living on Whidbey, just like checking out 500 square foot cabins displays the other, more affordable options.

And then, there’s the creative option. With very low rental vacancies, and many owners happy to own what they already have, some are taking the step to create their own estate or retreat, whether that’s with a tiny house or an expansive mansion. They’re buying land, hiring architects and contractors, and with a bit of patience, making a custom home for their unique lifestyle. More diversity and variety? Great! That’s what the island is known for.

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