“Put it this way,” explains realtor Erin Flaherty, “there’s a two-to-three-year waiting list to have contractors break ground on a swimming pool in Woodstock right now.”
Sitting by the fishpond in her Woodstock backyard, the Halter Associates Realty agent marvels at the current property boom in the upstate counties nearest to New York City, which is unlike anything in living memory. According to the National Association of Realtors, Ulster County saw a second quarter increase of 17.6% in home prices between 2019 and 2020, the highest increase in any US metropolitan region; neighboring Dutchess and Putnam Counties saw a boost of 6%.
“There are almost no rentals available either,” Flaherty says. “Scoring a desirable house upstate is like winning the lottery — and it’s a lottery you pay a lot of money to enter.”
When Covid measures effectively shut down life in the five boroughs last year, many New York City residents made a snap decision to try full-time rural living. As a result, small towns are now bursting at the seams with New Yorkers in search of the simple life. The result has been scenes playing out like real-life versions of (depending on your generational frame of reference) Green Acres or Schitt’s Creek, with cashed-up city slickers confronted by pared-down country amenities that don’t always satisfy their metropolitan expectations.
“This has always been a Subaru and VW van town. And now, all of a sudden, it’s Beemers and Rangers.”ERIN FLAHERTY, REALTOR
“Most restaurants up here don’t deliver,” says one frustrated Ulster restaurateur. “That hasn’t stopped the calls from people who want us to deliver dishes that we don’t even make. One lady called the other night at closing, she wanted a platter of unseasoned, skinless, grilled chicken breasts. When I said we couldn’t help, she berated me for wasting the time she’d spent explaining her order. I wanted to say, ‘Calm down, it’s just dinner!’”
Of course, upstate towns like Woodstock, Saugerties, Hudson, Phoenicia, and Rhinebeck have been popular escapes for New Yorkers for decades. The region has a robust cultural legacy — including the legendary three-day “Aquarian Exposition” of 1969, known around the world simply as Woodstock — that reaches back a century. Since 1903, the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild has attracted countless artists, among them Bob Dylan, sculptor Eva Hesse, painter Philip Guston, and the Broadway legend Helen Hayes, whose namesake hospital in West Haverstraw is still in operation.
For this reason, along with its bucolic charms, the region is a magnet for the most successful among the city’s creative class. Iman and her late husband, David Bowie, purchased a 50-acre Woodstock compound in 2011 — on whose grounds the singer’s ashes were reportedly scattered following his 2016 death. From the Hollywood crowd, the actors Paul Rudd and Jeffrey Dean Morgan own Samuel’s Sweet Shop in Rhinebeck. Amanda Seyfried, Michelle Williams, and Blake Lively and her husband, Ryan Reynolds, all have homes upstate, as does the photographer Terry Richardson.
Flaherty, a former Harper’s Bazaar executive editor who owns homes on Manhattan’s East Side and in Woodstock, has lived upstate full-time for two years. She says it’s now common to list a property midweek and by the weekend have hundreds of interested buyers lined up, with cash offers submitted almost immediately — many wanting to buy the staging furniture as well.
“Woodstock is the new Hamptons, except it’s not played out,” she says. “People who move here tend to be creative and passionate about getting involved in the community. This has always been a Subaru and VW van town. And now, all of a sudden, it’s Beemers and Rangers. Covid pushed the migration rate to Hamptons level. People now pay one hundred to two hundred thousand dollars over asking price.”
David and Lauren (who requested their surnames be withheld), both New York executives, live in a two-bedroom duplex in the West Village. Until quarantine, they hadn’t considered upstate as a viable destination, preferring the Hamptons instead. “I’d started noticing ‘#UpstateNewYork’ in my feed, and the photos were just so beautiful,” says Lauren. “I’m a total hippie at heart and David’s favorite band is the Rolling Stones, so we were immediately into it.”
“And, with Covid on the rise, upstate seemed like a safer place to live,” David adds. “I wasn’t so worried about myself, but Lauren was feeling anxious and the city was dead anyway.”
But while shopping around New Paltz for their ideal house — something not too far from town with four bedrooms, a kitchen with an Aga, and a large yard for their French bulldog — the couple has had some hair-raising experiences. “We’re not afraid of a little real estate competition,” says David. “But it’s been intense a few times.”
“On one trip, I was doing a quick k-turn on the main street in Woodstock and some woman yelled at me and called me a [expletive]!” says Lauren. “It wouldn’t have shocked me if that happened in the city, but upstate? I feel like she didn’t like that I was driving a Porsche.”
Carter Edwards, programs director at Mount Tremper Arts, a nearby dance and performance center, and his husband, Joshua Lyon, a writer and editor, have owned a bungalow in the hamlet of Shady since 2012. They split their time between Ulster Country and a Brooklyn loft until last summer, when they moved upstate full-time.
“We’d been making the transition gradually,” says Edwards, sitting by a fire pit in their tree-lined backyard. “I’ve talked to people up here over the years, and that seems to have been the trend for decades. You get a weekend house and, over time, it becomes your home and eventually you move or retire here. Josh and I were already doing that, but the pandemic accelerated it. I think if you move here from the city without acclimating, it can be a bit of a culture shock.”
There is a definite influx of people who don’t get it.”SAMARA NAEYMI, RESIDENT
Indeed, Edwards first noticed the tension between Woodstock residents and new arrivals mounting last summer, exacerbated by Covid restrictions. “It was significantly more crowded than it normally is. No one was going to the bars, of course, but they were outdoors a lot and every-body had descended on Big Deep,” he says, referring to a popular local swimming hole surrounded by walking trails.
Concerned about infection rates, local authorities put up signs declaring the area closed. When that was ignored, the area was cordoned off with police tape, which also failed to stop large groups of people swimming.
“Everyone decided that the rules didn’t apply to them,” says Edwards. “Locals got territorial, and weekenders saw a quaint swimming hole and just went, ‘Of course it’s fine for me to walk nearby.’ It became a real point of conflict.”
Woodstock Fire Department chief Kevin Peters has been a firefighter and resident of Woodstock for more than 40 years. He says the influx of unprepared visitors and new residents has brought an increase in avoidable alarm calls. “Airbnbs should provide detailed instructions on how to operate a wood fireplace and chimney,” he says. “It’s also clear people just aren’t taught the right way to use a CO2 alarm.”
Locals trade stories about the most ridiculous 911 calls that have been made by clueless newcomers, some expecting emergency services to respond if their child has a mild rash or their small dog is unsettled by local wildlife.
As someone who has divided his time between upstate and Brooklyn since 2014, I can also attest to the recent uptick in NYC-style agita. The days of driving along Woodstock’s main street, Mill Hill Road, without fearing a collision came to an end last summer — and not just because of Porsches making k-turns. Now, unfamiliar drivers regularly charge through stop signs from side streets, causing honking traffic to screech to a halt.
The other day, I also made the mistake of accidentally cutting in front of a Lululemon-clad woman pushing a $1,500 champagne-black Mima Xari stroller outside the local bakery, Bread Alone. To be fair, she was practicing social distancing, so it was a little unclear if she was in line. But when I stepped in front of her, she hit me with the kind of broadside I would normally associate with the passive-aggressive yoga moms of Tribeca or Park Slope.
“If you want to cut in line in front of an 18-month-old who hasn’t had breakfast yet, then by all means make that decision,” she said. Taken aback, it took me a moment to realize I wasn’t in a midtown Starbucks.
South of Woodstock, near Bethel, live Samara Naeymi, a voiceover artist, and her husband, Brendan Regimbal, who works for Columbia University. Last year, they purchased a 36-acre lakefront property in Sullivan County from a couple who were retiring to Mexico.
“There is a definite influx of people who don’t get it,” she says. “We went for a walk recently and ran into some hipster bro with an artisanal coffee, talking loudly on his phone in the woods. Our dog bounded up to him and he panicked, dropped his coffee, and bolted in the other direction without even saying hello. Who does that in the country?”
Naeymi says she wouldn’t be surprised if their home’s previous owners could see the influx of city dwellers and knew the area was no longer for them.
“We’re really happy to have found this place — we’ve loved upstate New York for years,” Naeymi says. “It was odd though, because at the time prices were going through the roof and bidding wars were everywhere. These guys had lived here since the ’80s but were so eager to sell that it was listed for $499,000 and we got it for just $530,000. We weren’t sure we’d get it given the market — it could easily have been a hundred over asking.”
But the lower-than-expected closing price wasn’t all that pointed to the owners’ frantic need to get out before the crowds took over. After having in-person walk-throughs postponed several times, Naeymi and Regimbal finally entered their new property on the day they closed the sale and saw that while everything was spotlessly clean, the sellers had left all their possessions behind. Among the furniture, they found collectibles including vintage Playboy and Playgirl magazines; Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Disney memorabilia; a chest of costume jewelry brooches; a stack of faded family photographs stashed beneath a chair; and an entire room full of neatly piled wicker baskets. What really shocked Naeymi, however, were two plain envelopes, one marked “2019 Tax Returns,” and the other “Last Will and Testament.”
“I haven’t opened the envelopes, but taxes and a will seem like pretty important paperwork,” she says. Clearly, the previous owners couldn’t get out fast enough.
Ironically, the boom in property prices has been so lucrative for upstate residents that it has also funded movement in the opposite direction. Some sellers have taken the money and opted to move back into the city, despite the virus, where relative bargains are suddenly available.
Dr. Giancarlo Poletti and his wife, Yumi Kurosawa Poletti, both musicians, moved from the Upper East Side into a three-bedroom house on 1.6 acres in Saugerties in 2008. They’d been considering selling up and buying a house elsewhere for years, but the increased interest in upstate made the decision that much easier.
After putting their house on the market one morning in June, it didn’t even have time to appear online before their broker called with interest from a New York City buyer. A virtual tour was conducted via iPad at 11 a.m., and by 3 p.m. the place was sold with no contingencies.
“It was the quickest sale of a property I’ve ever been involved in,” says Dr. Poletti. “We got almost $70,000 more than we’d asked for in a matter of hours. We loved living upstate in that house, but we’re glad we got out when we did.” The Polettis have since moved back to Brooklyn and have their sights on a house somewhere in Europe, but haven’t yet decided where.
How the easing of Covid restrictions and the sudden population increase will impact life upstate in the long term remains to be seen, but there’s no sign interest is waning.
“One of the many things that makes Woodstock cool is that it’s always been the kind of place celebrities can hang out and nobody bothers them,” says Flaherty, the realtor. “David Bowie used to go to the local deli, the Cub, regularly and no one would bat an eye. There’s never been paparazzi up here.”
But now, she adds ruefully, “I wonder if that’ll change.”