I spend a lot of time working with buyers who are interested in purchasing a home in the foothills and mountains. Some are from out of state and feel that a part of the allure of moving to Colorado is mountain living, while others have lived in the rapidly-growing Metro Denver area and suburbs long enough to have an appetite for the peace and quiet that mountain living affords. Still others are just avid skiiers who would like to trim some time off of their drive up to the resorts! Whatever the reasons, there are many considerations that come with living in the hills that buyers need to be aware of, in order to make an educated decision about buying a mountain property. Since these are details I find myself covering with buyers pretty regularly, I decided it was high time I wrote a blog post that covered everything you need to know about buying in the mountains!
The prospect of living in the foothills and mountains can seem magical and serene, but buyers should be aware that mountain living comes with a wide array of issues that a "flatlander" may never encounter, with suburban living. There are positives and negatives that must be weighed, before moving forward with a purchase.
Getting closer to nature
This is really the main draw, for most people: The fresh air, the beautiful scenery and changing colors of the Aspen trees, abundant wildlife, with convenient access to hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing. Colorado's mountains are beautiful year-round. That said, the types of wildlife that encroach on your property may not always be welcome additions to the scenery (or your garden/plants). Access to county-maintained roads may not be very convenient and a homeowner may be required to invest in a snowplow or blade, to clear a path to county roads that are plowed the morning after heavy snowfall. This can seriously lengthen a commute into the city, for work. The possibility even exists for snowfall to be so significant that the state highways or freeways are forced to close, until they can be cleared. Being snowed-in during the dead of winter is not that uncommon, for many mountain dwellers. If reliable commute times are important to a buyer, they need to confine their search to homes that are in close proximity to major paved access roads and the highway.
How often or far do you commute?
In ideal weather conditions, there are many places in the foothills surrounding Denver that lend themselves to the "mountain living" vibe, with a reasonable commute into the city. Those properties sell for a premium to others that are deeper in the hills, because they offer quick access to the highway and city centers. Depending upon the price point, the properties that fit a buyer's budget or needs may require a 20-30 minute drive traversing slow, winding dirt roads before ever hitting the main traffic arteries. It will take longer to get to the store for groceries, to reach medical care (or for emergency services to reach your property) and as a result, things that we take for granted in the city become a bit more cumbersome and inconvenient, living in the hills. It requires an adjustment in habits for many buyers...forgetting one or two items at the store goes from a quick trip to the corner store, to a significant time investment. In situations where a heavy storm front moves in, or mudslides/rockslides/fallen trees, roads may become impassible and so residents of mountain areas need to plan ahead, for when those situations inevitably arise...and they will.
Power outages are much more common
Because the weather that mountain residents experience is usually magnified several times over what ends up hitting the city, things like power outages and other service disruptions (like internet) are far more common. There has been a marked increase in the number of solar systems being installed on mountain properties, for this reason...and backup generators are also commonplace. Having ample supplies and possibly even owning or leasing a propane tank (which is very common, further away from city centers) are considerations. Just as it is with the commute, preparation for surprise storms or other service-related issues are much more important in the mountains than they are, for those living "down the hill."
Internet, cellphone service and mobile data are far less reliable
There are carriers that insist they offer the most robust coverage available in the mountains, but the fact remains that there are only so many cell phone towers available and the mountains have far fewer of them than the city does. A buyer could consider themselves very fortunate if they're able to get 4G data and quality reception at their new mountain home...because it's not the norm. Many properties will only support the most basic voice communications and that, not very reliably. Wired internet connections are also at a premium, as the majority of homes will have to resort to wireless, or even satellite...which is far less reliable and slower. This is a major consideration for people who are attracted to mountain living as telecommuters who don't need to work in the city and can do their jobs from home. Once again, being closer to city centers and major thoroughfares increases the chances of reliable coverage greatly, but also the price point of the homes in question.
The land itself often presents complications
Dense trees surrounding a property may initially be attractive to a buyer, until a beetle infestation arrives and begins killing them...or a fire starts and threatens to spread to the treeline of their property. Many mountain properties are built into the side of the hill, on a slope. This can cause runoff from melting snow or rain that can erode the ground, cause damage to a foundation, saturate a septic system's leach field, or even create a mudslide. It's extremely important that in cases like this, mitigation systems for runoff be in place to guide the water away from (or through) the property, without causing problems. In Colorado, it's not uncommon for a morning snow to be mostly melted by the late afternoon...so runoff is a common occurrence. Mountain properties often have dirt driveways that are rutted up due to runoff and low-clearance vehicles may get high-centered, trying to navigate them. Maintaining those driveways via grading and roadbase can become an annual expense, in many cases.
There are few (or no) city services available
This is a big one, for most people who are accustomed to living in the city. The three things "flatlanders" most take for granted are water, sewer and natural gas. All three of these throughout most of metro Denver are provided by the city the home is located in. In the mountains, it's very possible that none of them will be available through the city. Most mountain properties have a well for water, which may or may not produce enough water to support household use. Those homeowners that have a well which produces ample water are fortunate...the ones who don't are forced to invest in a pressure tank system that will store water for use. Rather than having a city tap to a sewer system, the mountain and other rural properties along the front range and mountains use in-ground septic systems to handle solid and liquid waste. These are usually a combination of a holding tank and what is known as a "leach field" - so named because the waste water runs down perforated tubes and "leaches" into the ground surrounding them. The water is then removed via a combination of natural vegetation and evaporation. In lieu of having a natural gas connection, many mountain dwellers either lease, or invest in a large propane tank and appliances which are designed to use propane, rather than natural gas. There are many companies who will truck propane up to a mountain property and fill the tank, as needed...whether it makes sense to purchase or lease is heavily dependent on the owner. Also very important when considering a location is how far away the nearest fire station and hospital are. Always check to see what the typical response time to your home would be, in case of an emergency.
Do you need a garage?
This is one thing that routinely surprises buyers who are new to the mountains. In the foothills and mountains surrounding Denver, it's somewhat rare to find properties under $450,000 that also have a garage. There may be a covered carport, but very often there will be nowhere to park a vehicle indoors. This is often due to the land itself - a sloped lot on the side of a hill doesn't lend itself to a garage as well as flat land does. For buyers who are considering a move into the mountains for the first time, the lack of a garage proves to be a deal-breaker, almost every time.
Pay attention to the property's zoning
This can be important, particularly when looking into potential environmental hazards. A major consideration in Colorado's foothills are the properties that are zoned for mining use. There are areas (Idaho Springs comes immediately to mind) where many properties have heaps of slag nearby, or on the property. Slag can contain an abundance of potentially toxic elements such as Chromium, lead and arsenic, which can seep into the water supply. It's doubly important as part of the due diligence portion of inspecting the property that a water quality test be included, along with testing its production. Ensuring that the property is not built above a mine - turning it into a potential sinkhole - is also very important! In addition to environmental concerns, zoning will tell you what uses are and aren't allowed.
Homeowners Associations are rare and usually defunct
It's entirely possible that a buyer will make an offer on a property that says it has an HOA, with a very small annual fee for something like snow removal and nothing else. This HOA may even have covenants and restrictions written into a document...but the board that existed when the CC&R's were written will most likely be long-since defunct, with almost no one to enforce the rules. Neighbors who are aware of them can still file a grievance with the county and get the rules enforced that way, but it is usually perceived as being more trouble than it's worth. In the mountains, neighbors usually get to know each other pretty well and it behooves a new resident to make friends with the other homeowners around them. In the event of an emergency or seriously bad weather, those neighbors can become a lifeline. Fortunately, most of them already know the drill, have all the equipment they need, and will be happy to help you out. Make them your best dessert dish and take it over to their place as a "Thank You!"
Don't freak out about non-standard construction techniques
In the mountains, it's not uncommon at all to find "unique" ways of solving construction needs. Duck down into a crawlspace and you may see perfectly-sized tree stumps being used as supports. As long as they're dry and show no signs of rot, they're just as good (if not better) than any construction materials you might buy. Some of the homes are built on a concrete slab, rather than a traditional in-ground foundation...and still others are built on flagstone foundations. Pretty much every mountain home is custom-built, so each one will have its own unique look and character: No two will likely be the same. It's also not uncommon for homeowners to do additions and renovations, without pulling permits for them...it's rare that anyone checks whether improvements are up to code (or notices that improvements have been done, in the first place), so many people decide not to go to the trouble and expense of getting a permit. This may or may not be an issue, depending on whether an inspection reveals safety issues related to the construction of the improvements...but the responsibility of determining the condition and safety falls to the buyer, during the inspection period. It may result in additional expenses, if something needs to be reworked. A good inspector that specializes in mountain properties can provide a serious education on this topic.
In spite of the fact that there is so much to think about, when you're considering a home in Colorado's foothills and mountains...the rewards of mountain living can be truly awesome. Fresh air, a slower pace, breathtaking surroundings and peace and quiet, when you want it. After reading this article, you should be armed with the knowledge needed to pursue your hunt for a mountain property more effectively. When you're ready to have me show you some places, I'm only a phone call or e-mail away!