HOW TO BUY A MAINE HOME
By Petra Guglielmetti
Illustrations by Marc Rosenthal
In a state where the real estate scene is as varied and colorful as the geography, your search should start with insight from locals on the ground — and this insider’s guide.
A lighthouse perched atop craggy cliffs and crashing waves — it’s a postcard-perfect scene people around the world associate with Maine. Yet there’s so much more to the story for those who live in the state, or hope to one day soon. “In Maine, you can find a place to match pretty much any lifestyle you’re looking for,” says Chris Masiello, president and CEO of The Masiello Group, which has real estate offices across the state. Idyllic coastal villages. Close-knit suburban enclaves with great schools. Lively cities speckled with acclaimed shops, art galleries, and eateries. Bustling ski and college towns. Secluded lakes and busy working waterfronts. Our embarrassment of real estate riches is why Maine beckons to potential buyers of so many backgrounds — and why the state’s housing market can be tricky to navigate for new buyers. To help you get a foothold, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to property shopping in Vacationland — whether you’re a visitor harboring dreams of staying awhile or a local who can’t imagine living anyplace else.
Should I rent first (or instead)?
If you’re relocating to Maine “from away” (as we locals say), renting while you get your bearings seems like a wise move. However, year-round rentals are tough to find in some areas of the state — including cities with few large apartment complexes, popular tourist areas where pricey weekly rentals on sites like Airbnb and VRBO dominate, and Aroostook County, where the relatively low cost of purchasing a home makes for a weak rental market. All of these factors play into Maine being one of the least affordable rental markets in the country.
Portland is one area where full-time rentals are a bit more plentiful, albeit generally pricey. The city has many multi-family homes with rentable units and people have been buying new-construction condos to rent as investment properties, notes Brenda Cerino-Galli, associate broker at Portland’s Town & Shore Associates. Another option is to look for an “academic rental” — a place that rents by the week in the summer and by the month, at a much lower rate, during the off-season, says Jamie O’Keefe, a broker at The Knowles Company in Bar Harbor.
Listings often go on Craigslist, but you’re better off contacting a professional rental agency in the area where you want to live, or a real estate agent who’s willing to help with rentals, since many properties change hands via word-of-mouth. “I put out email blasts looking for rentals for clients and have found them just by driving past for-rent signs,” Cerino-Galli says.
When should I contact a real estate agent?
When you’re ready to view properties in person, it’s crucial to connect with a knowledgeable human — especially in Maine, which has countless regions-within-regions, some of which you may not key into from behind a keyboard. “A local broker will make sure you get personalized updates with listings that are of greatest interest to you,” says Nancy Hughes, owner of Camden Coast Real Estate. “Making a solid broker connection is also the best way to be aware of what’s happening in a specific market.” In greater Portland, for instance, properties have been receiving multiple bids after a single open house. A good agent can help you put together a winning offer, starting with a compelling cover letter, which would-be buyers are using to stand out from the crowd.
In more rural regions west and north, brokers can assist in narrowing your focus before you visit homes. “The most common mistake buyers make is underestimating the size of Maine’s regions — for example, Aroostook County is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined,” says Jane Towle, owner of Re/Max Central in Presque Isle. “Whether you’re looking for organic farming, lakefront property, or a small-town feel, it’s important to find an agent who specializes in a particular area, since one agent will not be knowledgeable about all 6,800 square miles.”
Where’s the best place to view listings?
While nationally syndicated sites like Zillow and Trulia are helpful for getting a broad overview of local markets, users frequently complain that the information they contain is outdated or misleading. “Available” homes may have already sold, “Zestimates” may be inaccurate, and listings may link up to brokers who aren’t local. Instead, bookmark MaineHomes.com (full disclosure: this is our site) and Realtor.com, which get up-to-date listings directly from the state Multiple Listing Service, Mainelistings.com (the consumer-facing site of the MLS feed), and the websites of local real estate agencies. These groups often have “pocket listings” on their sites that can’t otherwise be discovered, notes Peter McPheeters, owner of OceanView Properties in Biddeford Pool and Cape Porpoise.
Where can I afford to buy?
Maine’s most costly housing markets include the coastal areas of York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, and Knox counties, where the median sales price is $11,000 to $90,000 above the state median of $200,000. In Portland, South Portland, and Kennebunkport in particular, inventory is at historic lows and prices at historic highs. “Some buyers come to Maine looking for a bargain, and that’s not what they’ll find in coastal Maine right now,” Cerino-Galli says. That said, prices are relative. “If you’re coming from New York City, a $400,000 farmhouse in downtown Camden can be considered cheap,” Hughes says. And Maine offers plenty of bang for your buck compared to larger metropolitan areas: “Even in sought-after midcoast towns, there are amazing properties very competitively priced for the features they offer,” Masiello says. If you’re in love with a popular-but-pricey community you can’t quite afford, explore areas 15 to 30 minutes out (say, Gouldsboro instead of Bar Harbor), where you can frequently find a similar quality of life for less.
Generally speaking, prices drop dramatically once you go north of Acadia National Park and west of the Maine Turnpike. For a quiet lifestyle nestled among mountains, forests, and lakes — but with access to village amenities — the Rangeley, Greenville, and Presque Isle areas are increasingly popular choices. “The median sales price in Aroostook County [where Presque Isle is] remains steadily under $100,000, and it has so much to offer,” says Towle, noting that HGTV headed to the far-north territory for the premiere episode of its show Lakefront Bargain Hunt.
Buyers who made the leap to living in Maine share pearls of wisdom they picked up along the way.
The Future Retiree
Joyce Kennedy, Biddeford
After decades of Maine visits, Joyce, a Bath native, and her husband, Steven, sold their New York home and bought an expanded Cape overlooking Lily Pond in Biddeford’s Fortunes Rocks neighborhood, where they plan to retire.
BE OPEN-MINDED. The couple originally wanted to buy somewhere secluded; they looked in Harpswell before discovering Fortunes Rocks. While busier, the latter had many perks, including shaving 1.5 hours off their drive from New York. “It’s a community where everyone looks out for everyone else, and we like being 10 minutes from a store where we can pick up a sandwich,” Joyce says.
VISIT AT LEAST TWICE. If you plan to live in Maine year-round, see what the area you’re interested in is like during the peak and off-peak seasons. “In July and August, the population of some places doubles — and so does the traffic,” Joyce says. On the flip side, some businesses might shut down once the tourists leave.
REAP UNEXPECTED REWARDS. Joyce swears New York drivers honk at her less now that her car has Maine plates. “They must think I’m a slow out-of-towner,” she jokes.
The Young Family
Eric and Liz Tawfall, Presque Isle
The Tawfalls relocated from Illinois with their 10- and 13-year-old kids after a recruiter contacted Eric about a job in Presque Isle; now they’re happily ensconced in a four-bedroom Colonial close to Eric’s work.
TRUST YOUR AGENT. “Our house wasn’t even on the market — we told Jane [Towle] what we were looking for and she reached out to a homeowner she thought might be motivated to sell and made a deal happen,” Liz says. “We had a contract in place a couple weeks before we even toured the house!”
LOOK PAST THE SURFACE. Maine’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation, so chances are you’ll need to do some updating. “We focused on the layout of the house and where it was located and tried not to be distracted by things we could change, like paint and carpets,” Liz says.
PRIORITIZE A GARAGE. In addition to freeing you from clearing snow off your cars all winter long, a garage facilitates the adventures that are integral to life in Maine, says Liz, whose family has filled theirs with bikes, kayaks, golf clubs, and ski equipment.
The First-Time Buyers
Camille and Dennis Gunderson, Rockport
Tired of renting in Boston, the Gundersons -— boaters who are used to small apartments and nautical living quarters — settled in a 1,300-square-foot shingled cottage in the town they got married in.
BE READY TO POUNCE. “We found that good small homes went quickly,” Camille says. If you’re looking for a modestly sized residence, she recommends keeping a close eye on listings and jumping the moment you see something promising.
SECURE FINANCING FIRST. “Right after we went under contract, another couple had a cash offer waiting. We kept our fingers crossed that everything went smoothly on our end so we didn’t lose our house — being pre-approved for a mortgage definitely helped ease our worries and speed the process.”
EXPLORE NON-OFFICE JOBS. Telecommuting and freelancing open up the many parts of Maine that aren’t commutable to urban centers. “The midcoast lends itself to creatives and entrepreneurs,” says Camille, who started her own stationery and calligraphy business after moving there.
What do I need to know about property taxes?
They vary markedly from one town to the next, so factor them in as you research. “Cumberland and Knox counties are traditionally the most expensive, however, many buyers from out of state see the property taxes here overall as not too over-the-top,” Hughes says; you can find a master list of tax mill rates on Maine.gov or visit individual town websites. “Bear in mind that the market seems to self-adjust to some degree with regard to taxes,” McPheeters says. “For instance, property taxes in Kennebunkport are less than half of those in neighboring Biddeford. However, comparable properties in Biddeford are significantly less costly.”
I want to live in Portland but listings sell so fast.
While some predict the current frenzy will soon cool, the fact remains “we’re in a crazy market with multiple offers on nearly everything that’s priced right and houses selling for $30,000 to $50,000 over list,” Cerino-Galli says. One factor she says makes a difference: getting a good pre-approval letter from a respected local lender. “Connections mean everything in Maine, and aligning with a lender with a great reputation may help you win out in a multiple-offer situation.” You’ll also need to be on the scene each weekend to visit open houses, as offers on popular properties come in by Monday. “Sometimes one partner comes and makes an offer without the other partner seeing the house in person — I’ve seen this happen successfully a number of times,” Cerino-Galli says.
Where else can I find a cosmopolitan feel?
For a bustling-but-affordable small urban environment, McPheeters suggests Biddeford/Saco. “Reasonably priced homes can still be found within walking distance of great new restaurants, cool shops, and the convenience of Amtrak, or you can live five minutes outside town in true farm country.” For retirees looking to keep an active mind, he likes the Brunswick area, because of the cultural events Bowdoin College has to offer. Smaller cities and towns such as Belfast, Damariscotta, and Rockland, and the villages around them, are ideal for families, small business opportunities, and creative spirits, adds Hughes. Young families are also drawn to Portland suburbs with highly regarded schools and tightly knit communities, like Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Falmouth, and Yarmouth.
My heart is set on a waterfront home, but my budget isn’t sky-high. Any tips?
Maine has more shoreline than California — 3,748 miles to be exact. And yet: “It is becoming harder and harder for ‘civilians’ to find affordable homes near the water,” McPheeters says. Those who are willing to wait for the right property to come along, or take on a fixer-upper, can still find deals. Alternatively, “there are many coastal neighborhoods with rivers, ponds, and estuaries that are gorgeous, way less money, and way less crowded,” says McPheeters, who points to the southern end of the Saco River and Kennebunkport’s Batson River estuary as examples. If you’re looking for lakefront, spots in Rangeley and the 55 navigable water bodies within a 10-mile radius of Augusta — like Echo Lake and Torsey Pond — are still within reach, with prices starting around $125,000.
What’s the best time of year to look?
Thanks to the internet, the old rule about spring/summer being the peak time to buy/sell no longer holds true. “We actually see a spike in our website traffic after most of the summer traffic has left,” McPheeters says, adding that fall is ideal for second-home shopping. “Sellers are still putting their homes on the market and pricing might be a bit more favorable for those homes that were on the market for the summer but haven’t sold yet.” For other types of sales, “there’s no optimal time that I have noticed. In today’s world, listings come and go regardless of the time of year.”
Maine Things to Consider
Be on the lookout for these key terms as you house-shop in the state.
FLOOD ZONE A designated area with an increased likelihood of — yup, you guessed it. To find out if a home is within a flood zone (and will require flood insurance), you can refer to maps based on statistics from 100 years of flooding; visit fema.gov or maine.gov to learn more.
GRANDFATHERED PROPERTY An older home that may be livable and insurable but is not up to code because existing regulations were not in place when the work was done. Before renovating, check in with the local code enforcement officer, says broker Nancy Hughes. “There are often many things that are required to bring a house up to code that people are not aware of.”
SHORELAND ZONING Each coastal town has its own version of these rules, which regulate things like setbacks from the water, which trees can be cleared, how land can be divided, increases to building heights and envelopes, and more. Look for specifics on maine.gov.
UNORGANIZED TERRITORY An outlying area, a.k.a. a “plantation” or “township,” not governed by an incorporated municipal government. It may share the nearest town’s fire and police department and enjoys a slightly lower tax assessment.
Don't Let This Scare You Off
MAINE WINTERS “People have misconceptions about how bad Maine winters are, especially when you’re talking about the coast, where it’s actually fairly moderate,” broker Jamie O’Keefe says. “Some years Connecticut gets more snow than we do.” To brighten the dark season, look for a home with lots of natural light, agent Brenda Cerino-Galli advises.
NOT BEING A MAINER “Coming to Maine and thinking you have all the answers is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot,” says Bill Mautz, who recently bought in Biddeford. “You’ve got to say ‘hey, I’m new here,’ and learn from people in a way that’s not pretentious. If you’re a good listener, people here want to help you and want you to be part of the community.”
WELL WATER “Outside of town, most of us have private wells and septic systems, which often triggers a fear of the unknown in buyers who are used to city water,” O’Keefe says. Those on a well must get their water tested, and may need to enlist a water-treatment company to ID a specific fix, “but it’s not a big deal at all.”
THE DUMP Instead of offering waste pickup, many Maine municipalities have transfer stations, colloquially known as “the dump,” where residents drop off their own trash and recycling — and often trade castoffs at makeshift swap shops. But don’t worry, you can hire a private sanitation company if hauling garbage isn’t your thing.