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Our Lives Have Changed: Young couple shut out of the competitive Traverse City housing market

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Taylor Wizner
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Andy McQuillen was an essential worker as a vendor at the Home Depot in Ypsilanti. The store was busy. When Covid cases peaked last spring, everyone started home improvement projects. Maskless people often came right up to Andy’s face.

  

“I just started to have panic attacks in the aisle of Home Depot,” he says. “I was just like, ‘I can’t take it anymore and it can’t be this bad Up North.’”

In September, Andy and his fiance Becky packed their stuff (including their dozens of plants — they are avid collectors) and moved to Traverse City, like many people who left cities in the pandemic for the tranquility of northern Michigan.

The transition was simple. Andy and Becky quickly found new jobs: Becky at a bank, Andy at a distillery. They lived three blocks from Grand Traverse Bay and enjoyed ordering vegan takeout.

But in February, their landlord raised the rent an additional $400 a month, an amount they couldn’t afford. They began looking for other places near town, but couldn’t believe the prices for a one bedroom that allowed dogs.

The perfect town they envisioned was starting to lose its luster.

“We don’t want to go bankrupt either renting to live here or spending all our gas to get here,” Andy says. 

The couple had saved up so they decided to look for a house in the Cadillac area, close to Becky’s family. They had sticker shock there, too.

“We thought just up here houses were a dime a dozen, and more affordable and there was always going to be land,” Andy says. “Typically the scraps we end up finding, it will be like .12 acres. Not even enough to garden on. And all the wood is rotten around the windows.”

The couple admits they were somewhat naive as first-time home buyers. But the pandemic market has been in full swing during their housing search.

“[The realtor and I would] have like seven houses picked out on Thursday,” Becky says. “Friday the realtor would be like, ‘okay, four of those have pending offers.’ And the next morning she would be like, ‘and two more have pending offers. So there’s just one more for you to look at. Do you want to drive all this way?’”

It seemed to Becky and Andy they were always one step behind. Then, they overheard something at a bookstore that really shook them up.

A customer at the store asked one of the employees if her recently deceased grandmother’s home would be up for sale soon.

“I was just like this is what we’re up against? Poaching dead grandmas? Like I knew it was bad but whoa that was next level,” Becky says.

Dave Wilsey, the board president for Aspire North, a realtors association, says he sees couples like Andy and Becky all the time—younger people looking to make the move Up North.

He says people all over the country want to put down roots right now. There’s additional incentive to buy because interest rates are historically low. 

He worries the hyper competitive market might be obscuring the true value of these properties.

“If you look at it two, three years down the road is the home even going to be worth that?” Dave says.

Right now, Andy and Becky are living at her parents’ house in Manton. 

It’s been a decade since Becky’s lived at home, but she’s enjoying it. She’s learning from her dad, who’s a skilled woodworker.

Andy’s considering starting up a Facebook group to trade indoor plants, as a way to meet people who have similar interests. 

“Vegans in Manton Michigan, we’re probably the only ones here,” Andy says with a laugh. “It’s quite possible.”

But he’s optimistic he’ll find his tribe.

“If as many people are trying to get out of cities as we are, there’s already people like us that have potentially moved here over the last few months,” Andy says.

Now, they’re saving money living at home, holding out that the market might quiet down over the next few months. They’re still dreaming about what home could be.

“Ideally just five acres or less,” Andy says. “Right now we’re settling for an acre or less. But two bedrooms just so we can have a guest one day when it’s safe. Some south facing windows obviously for all the plants. She likes too many built-in bookshelves for her too many books.”

Andy says they don’t want much—just a small space of their own. But that’s exactly what most people are looking for now, too.

That was the final story in our series, Our Lives Have Changed, about how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted northern Michigan. You can find the other stories in the series here.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.