On a ridge in Louisville with a stunning view of the Flatirons stood a six-bedroom, five-bath home, now reduced to a pile of ash by the Marshall fire, one of more than 1,000 homes in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County destroyed on Dec. 30.
The lot, rubble and all, went up for sale in early February, listed at $950,000.
It’s the costliest of at least 10 burned homesites up for sale after the fire, and after the price was reduced to $799,000, it may already have an offer.
None of the 10 lots have sold yet, according to Boulder County officials. None is listed for less than $300,000. Many listings tout amenities like stellar views of the Flatirons, proximity to trails, and the lack of HOAs. Several mention fire debris removal is scheduled for the near future.
Some intrepid buyers trying to navigate a supercharged housing market in a desirable area may find opportunity on burned lots, real estate experts say. (The home that stood on the Louisville view lot before the fire sold in 2015 for $1.4 million.)
But they’ll need to come prepared with cash and patience.
Spencer Arrasmith, 30, went scouting for homesites with his dad last week in the Sagamore neighborhood of Superior, where every home burned.
Arrasmith was all set to start house hunting last summer, with a mortgage loan preapproval for up to $500,000 in hand, until a car crash knocked him out of commission. Since then, home prices have climbed, with the median price of single-family homes in Boulder County sitting at $745,500 in January.
Friends who are house hunting in Louisville and Superior are routinely getting outbid by tens of thousands of dollars, Arrasmith said. Though he has a good job as a software developer at Ball Aerospace, Arrasmith is concerned he can’t compete for a single-family home.
That’s where the burned homesites come in.
“The homes were wiped off the face of the planet, but in some cases the foundation, driveways and sewer lines still appear to be good,” Arrasmith said, adding that some foundations may have been damaged by high heat, and may be removed as part of debris removal programs.
“It won’t necessarily be a blank piece of land,” Arrasmith said. “A good foundation and sewer line could be a $100,000 head start.”
Arrasmith said he figures he can keep costs down by doing as much labor as possible himself. On the optimistic side, he said it’s possible he could spend another $200,000 on materials and additional labor. If all goes well, it could net him a new home in Superior for under $600,000 in a neighborhood where homes were selling for $700,000 or more before the fire.
“It’s not like it wouldn’t come with some asterisks,” he said. “I’d be living in a disaster area. But it could work.”
Buyers looking to invest in burned homesites should come prepared for a long and difficult process, said Brigette Modglin, a member of the Denver Metro Association of Realtors Market Trends Committee and a broker associate at Kentwood Real Estate.
Very few lenders will write loans for vacant land, Modglin said.
“You’ll probably need to come with a lot of cash,” she said.
Second, buyers of individual homesites will need to be ready for a long wait for contractors and homebuilders, who are tied up with larger subdivisions along the Front Range. Getting single homes built could take two or three years, she said.
Still, Modglin said her office has been hearing from potential buyers who wonder if burned homesites might be their ticket into a sought-after location.
“These impacted areas are so desirable,” she said. “We’ll hear from people in California who say the fire doesn’t scare them. They’ve always wanted to live here, and they still do. Some areas get stigmatized after a natural disaster, but I don’t see that happening here.”
Similar patterns played out after other natural disasters, Modglin said. Burned homesites were hot sellers after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, and lots continue to sell well in the burn area of the East Troublesome fire near Granby. Modglin’s agency has one on the market now, she said.
“The Marshall burn area might even see quicker sales,” she said. “I think people largely see that fire as unusual, because it took place at lower elevation. In the forest or the mountains, you know that’s a risk. Here, it’s hard, but you have to think positive and hope that it won’t happen again.”
So far, sales haven’t materialized. No burned homesites have yet changed hands, according to the Boulder County Assessor’s Office. In the Sagamore neighborhood, no homesites are for sale for less than $300,000, and current list prices range up to $450,000. Many listings include photos of piles of rubble, as well as photos of the homes before they burned.
Of the nine homesites in Sagamore currently listed for sale on Zillow and Redfin, seven are listed at prices above what they last sold for when the homes were standing. Property records show most of the homesites for sale are owned by someone with a different address from the home, suggesting most were being used as rentals.
Stephen Moe, a psychiatrist who lives in Denver, is selling two homesites he owns in Sagamore. He bought the homes in 1999, each for a little over $200,000, according to county records. He had used them as rentals since then. His insurance already paid him $450,000 each for the properties, and he listed both lots for sale on Valentine’s Day, one priced at $300,000, another at $325,000.
“I don’t have the poignant story of someone who lived there,” said Moe, who owns two other rentals in Boulder. His rentals were overseen by property managers, and Moe said he’s not sure where his tenants wound up after the fire.
“This seemed like a good time to sell and let someone else purchase the lots who would have more of an emotional stake in rebuilding than I would have,” he said.
Moe said he hasn’t had any offers yet, and isn’t sure if they’re overpriced, but he figured it was better to start high.
“At first I figured maybe the lots might go for $100,000, but people around me started listing them at $300,000, so who knows what the market will be?”
He figures interest might pick up as the county’s debris removal process moves forward. The cleanup is scheduled to be complete by July, according to Boulder County.
“I’m 60, so I’m getting older, but if I were in my thirties and had a job in the Boulder area, maybe it would be exciting to build from the ground up, design your own home, and start a family in your own place,” Moe said.
Someone like Arrasmith, perhaps.
“It’s daunting, but an exciting idea,” Arrasmith said. “I identify with this area. It’s where I’m from. If I go after this, I’d feel like I’m helping Boulder County rise from the ashes. It would be almost poetic.”