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Word Out About West's 'Best Small Town'

Housing prices in the Idaho lakefront community have skyrocketed, but are still lower than in better-known resorts.

March 28, 2004|Nicholas K. Geranios | Associated Press Writer

SANDPOINT, Idaho — As you drive across the mile-long bridge that spans Lake Pend Oreille, the charming center of Sandpoint appears.

For many, it has been love at first sight. As a result, real estate prices are booming in the former logging community. Although prices are low compared to Aspen or Sun Valley, housing costs at Schweitzer Mountain ski area or on the lake has skyrocketed in the last couple of years.

"The quality of life here is exceptional," said Rich Faletto, who operates a real estate office here.

Sunset Magazine recently named Sandpoint the best small town in the West, and it is something of a surprise that the town of 7,000 was not "discovered" sooner.

Sandpoint is packed with restaurants, art galleries, fine shopping and a lively arts scene. It sits on the shores of one of the West's largest and deepest freshwater lakes. The ski resort is 11 miles from town, making for a rare combination of winter and summer recreation in one place.

There is no comprehensive source of real estate price information in Idaho, so the increase in housing costs is difficult to measure. But those who live in the area have seen a jump of 10% to 20% over the last couple of years. A casual glance through real estate magazines shows lakeside homes topping $1 million, and new condos at Schweitzer starting at $240,000.

Those are unusual numbers in Idaho's Panhandle, where natural resource industries like mining and logging have suffered for years, and unemployment rates are the highest in the state at more than 6%. But Sandpoint, like many mountain resort communities, is somewhat isolated from the predominant regional economies and operates with its own set of demographics.

Many recent gains occurred after Harbor Resorts of Seattle bought financially struggling Schweitzer Mountain in 1999 and decided to push it as a destination resort for Puget Sound-area tourists. Harbor built the 50-unit White Pine Lodge condos, and launched a media blitz.

"We have a real gem with Schweitzer Mountain Resort," said Ron Nova, vice president of resort operations at Harbor.

Faletto said White Pine Lodge quickly sold every unit except the penthouse in the first few months, and hundreds of people inquired about property.

"Sixty percent of those people told us they had never heard of Sandpoint or Schweitzer until that time," he said. "These people fell in love with Sandpoint and Schweitzer."

The mountain has 627 homes, with many more planned.

Lakeshore Mountain Properties is selling private land next to the ski area for $175,000 to $335,000 per lot for homes that must cost at least $500,000.

One drawback for the community is the lack of scheduled airline service. The closest commercial airport is in Spokane, some 90 miles away. Driving from Seattle to Sandpoint takes about six hours.

Local business leaders recently banded together to start air service, with McCall Aviation providing flights to Sandpoint from Boise and Seattle. Businessmen pledged to buy a certain number of tickets to persuade the airline to begin service using a nine-passenger plane.

Sandpoint is also serviced by Amtrak's Empire Builder.

Jeanne Jackson of the Sandpoint Assn. of Realtors said there are only 44 homes or condos on the market in the area. The average condo listing is $286,000 and the average home is $486,000, she said.

Lakefront property, the most expensive in the region, is expected to reach $5,000 per foot of shoreline this year. But if you factor out the recreation property, prices drop plenty, she said. The average house in town lists for $174,000, and condos can be had in town for $65,000.

That means Sandpoint so far has largely avoided the runaway housing costs that have priced low-wage workers out of the market in places like Vail.

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