By Emily Stifler Wolfe
Campbell Schnebly and James Murphy walk beside a buck rail fence, sunlight just starting to warm the fall morning air. They pause to take it all in—the sage-covered hillside, the blue October sky and the aspens burning gold in the distance. Schnebly places her head on Murphy’s shoulder.
“I’ve always been a tourist here,” Murphy says quietly as they hike up a steep two-track road a few minutes later.
Growing up in Naples, Florida, Murphy, 32, visited his family’s vacation home in Big Sky two or three times a year, and his father Jim, owner of Continental Construction, built homes in both Naples and Big Sky. But a career in wellness startups took Murphy to New York, where the city’s professional opportunities and vibrant culture kept him for six years. After the couple got engaged in December, they started looking at real estate in the hip Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo.
“It feels comical now that was on the radar,” says Murphy.
In March, they were on a ski trip in Big Sky when the pandemic began to escalate. The plan was to stay for a week, but instead, they stayed through the summer, then into the fall, only returning to the city in September to move out of their apartments. At first it felt like they were playing hooky on New York and their jobs, but as working remotely became the professional norm, they leaned in.
“The pandemic was a really unexpected opportunity to try out life here in a real way, and we fell in love with it,” said Schnebly, 28, a writer and literary agent in publishing. “It’s the contact with nature, the ability to be more active, and how social life here revolves around being outdoors and adventuring.”
When a dreamy 65-acre property on Beaver Creek popped up on Zillow, they went to see it on a whim and put in an offer 24 hours later. They plan to renovate the existing 1970s cabin to “live into it” for a few years before building a home.
“It felt meant to be,” Schnebly said.
While they’ll miss the city’s vibrant energy, Schnebly said they’re excited to become part of the Big Sky community, where they’ve already made friends and become part of a business venture. Since July, they’ve been working with another couple to operate Toast—the restaurant owned by Lone Mountain Land Company, recently rebranded as Acre—which Schnebly hopes will serve as a gathering spot like the cafes and hangouts they loved in New York.
Kathryn Moos and Jeff Mroz, founders of OWYN, a plant-based nutrition company based in New York, are Schnebly and Murphy’s business partners at Acre. They too, came out for a ski trip in March and never left and were under contract to purchase a home by late October.
Both couples are part of what the Washington Post has dubbed the “Impromptu Great American Migration of 2020,” which has drawn city dwellers to rural places nationwide. With the pandemic, civil unrest and widespread wildfires pushing people out of major cities, many were seeking peace of mind and safety in small, quieter communities with open space. Add to that record- low interest rates, and ski resort towns in the Rockies saw a boom in home sales this past summer. In Big Sky— where the market has already grown steadily over the last decade alongside the addition of new infrastructure, amenities and resources—demand was up, inventory was down, and real estate was moving faster than ever.
While public safety regulations caused Big Sky to cancel its signature summer events like the Music in the Mountains summer concert series and Big Sky PBR, it wasn’t exactly a slow summer or fall around town.
On any given day, the parking lot for the Wilson Hotel had cars with license plates from 20 different states. Mountain bikers came to ride the area’s 60-plus miles of trails, people filtered through the weekly summer farmers market and local businesses were hopping.
“We’ve been really fortunate that Big Sky seems like it’s a safe place to come,” said Callie Stolz, a Big Sky resident since 1996, and owner of Santosha Wellness Center. While the yoga classes were relatively quiet this summer and fall, demand for Santosha’s bodywork services stayed high into the fall, a season that’s usually quiet. “It was so busy going into the shoulder season that it makes me wonder what the winter has in store for us.”
The K-12 public school system saw a 10 percent increase in enrollment over last year, with 35 additional students. Big Sky School District Superintendent Dustin Shipman said it is likely a result of families moving to the area this summer, or others who had second homes already and decided to stay. The local private school, Big Sky Discovery Academy, is at capacity, with 64 students, 12 more than last year. Most of its pre-K through high school programs have a waitlist.
In terms of real estate, as of September the median sales price for a single family home was $1,711,150—1 percent higher year to date as compared to the same period in 2019—while the condo and townhome market was up 12 percent to $600,000, according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors. During September, inventory was down 54 percent for single family homes and 57 percent for townhomes and condos, as compared to last September.
“There has been a noticeable incremental increase in activity and urgency,” said Eric Ossorio, managing broker with Engel and Völkers Big Sky office. Agents in Big Sky since 1992, Ossorio and his wife Stacy are the listing agents on the property Schnebly and Murphy were under contract for along Beaver Creek, and said if the couple had decided not to buy their place, it would have been back under contract within a day because they had backup offers.
While the number of transactions was similar to years past, Ossorio said the balance was shifting toward more demand for improved property, as compared to land, and many buyers paid cash.
“Things have gotten a little bit more frenzied, because now all a sudden you’re finding people who are competing for properties,” Ossorio said. “If you’re living in San Diego, Portland, Atlanta or other urban population centers, where there are fires and riots, you don’t want to spend 24 months building a house. You need a safety valve.”
Sales were also strong at the Yellowstone Club, a private ski and golf community where most properties are not listed on the Multiple Listing Service.
“We had an all-time summer, in terms of sales activity,” said Bill Collins, the club’s director of sales in mid- October. “Demand is at an all-time high, while inventory is at an all-time low.”
Neighboring Bozeman was already the fastest-growing U.S. micropolitan area for several years in a row, and its population will likely pass 50,000 once the 2020 census results are released. As of September, the median year to date sales price on single family homes within city limits was up 10 percent over last year to $512,000, with less than a month’s supply of inventory available. The markets in Western Montana and in the Billings area were showing similar trends, most notably Flathead County, which includes Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell, where the median sales price for single family homes was up 11 percent to $396,094 year to date, as compared to last.
Montana has a lot of appeal for Stephanie Kirkpatrick and Stan Everett, who’ve had a second home in Big Sky since 2014. Longtime residents of Atlanta, Georgia, Kirkpatrick is a partner in a large architecture firm and Everett manages the southeast region for a national engineering company.
The couple typically spends around 12 weeks a year in Big Sky, skiing and hiking with their 20-year-old son, shooting competitive clays at the range near Three Forks, and working remotely. This past summer, they decided it was time to trade Atlanta for Montana for even more days of the year.
“Atlanta feels very unsafe right now in a lot of ways,” Kirkpatrick said. “From a financial perspective, from a social perspective, and in some cases, physically unsafe, like when we were kept up all night with guns and riots and the National Guard, and people shooting and lockdowns for days on end.” She described the helicopters that buzzed over their home with search lights during the riots and said on top of that, the severe quarantine restrictions for the last six months left them feeling trapped.
As of October, they were considering buying land elsewhere in Montana, but still within a three-hour radius of Big Sky. They’d spend summers there and keep their ski house at the mountain, while still returning to Atlanta for work, when necessary.
“We drive from the airport up to Big Sky, and it feels like home now to me—much more than Atlanta does,” said Everett, who’s lived in Atlanta since 1970. He’s approaching retirement and wants a place where he could raise chickens and goats, grow vegetables or shoot wild game, if needed.
“The freedom we feel in Montana, the lack of restrictions—of people not telling you where you have to go and what you have to do—it’s a very different feeling [than] being in a big city,” Everett said.
A number of their neighbors in Atlanta are also moving out, Kirkpatrick said. “There is an exodus … to as far away as they can get that makes sense—whether it’s to north Georgia or in our case, Montana. Other people are going to Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho.”
And with such a hot land market in Montana, property often moves so quickly that people make offers sight unseen—including the Kirkpatricks and Everetts.
“To be able to even look at a place, you [sometimes] have to put an offer on it or it’s gone by the time you get there,” Everett said.
When Darren Reinig first skied at Big Sky Resort in 2005, he knew it was a place he wanted to spend more time. After growing up in Auburn, California, an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe, he moved to San Diego for college and then to New York for business school. Now 46, Reinig lives with his family in southern California.
While Big Sky has more public infrastructure, private homes and amenities than the first time he visited 15 years ago, he sees other things that haven’t changed.
“What’s still the same is what makes this place so attractive—it’s rustic, it’s beautiful, it’s wide open,” Reinig said. “You have Yellowstone [nearby], so you’re never going to see development there. … This is not a place people go to be seen. It’s a place people go to get away. … This is not the Aspen crowd, and that’s what I find attractive.”
A managing partner at the investment advisory firm LourdMurray, Reinig has been trying to buy back into Big Sky since he had to sell the townhome he owned for a few years during the financial crisis. After spending the summer in a rental house here with their two daughters, Reinig and his wife Bree put an offer on land in the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club in late September. They’d already missed a few other places when they hesitated, and another potential buyer from California was also touring the property simultaneously, so this time they moved quickly. But after the seller changed his mind and decided to keep the property and develop it himself, they were back in the market again, looking for anything from a condo to a finished home to raw land.
“There’s so little inventory, and we’re going to have to pay a premium to get in, so we’re just going to be patient. … This is about where I want to [have] a second home and possibly live in a few years.”
And while Big Sky may be more expensive than in years past, Reinig sees it as a good value compared to other places he’s considered like Jackson, Wyoming, Summit County, Colorado, and Park City, Utah.
“When I saw Big Sky, I couldn’t believe that a place this nice existed and was basically untouched. I like that it’s wide open, it’s not built out and the skiing is awesome. … If you enjoy mountain sports, where are you going to beat this?”