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In a hot NW housing market, even isolated Point Roberts is seeing prices sizzle

The real estate market in Point Roberts, Washington, is hot despite the partial closure of the adjacent U.S.-Canada border.
Tom Banse
NW News Network
The real estate market in Point Roberts, Washington, is hot despite the partial closure of the adjacent U.S.-Canada border.

How hot is the Pacific Northwest real estate market? So hot that even in an isolated exclave such as Point Roberts, Washington, home prices are sizzling and some properties are changing hands sight unseen.

Point Roberts is a particularly interesting case study because the majority of property is owned by Canadians who are largely blocked from visiting due to COVID-19 restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border. American house hunters had difficulty accessing the scenic peninsula as well, although a recent easing of Canadian border crossing rules now makes inbound travel by car possible for fully vaccinated Americans.

“About 50% of my sales were virtual this past year and it was one of my busiest years,” said Tessa Pinckston, a RE/MAX real estate agent in Point Roberts.

Pinckston said buying a home without setting foot in it is not for everybody, but it is doable with technology assists from Zoom, using Facetime for home tours and by relying on local contractors to report on a property’s condition.

Point Roberts is a geographic oddity that dips into the U.S. from Canada. The border community is rimmed by beaches on three sides; its northern side squishes up against suburban Tsawwassen, British Columbia. The only road in and out requires an international boundary crossing.

A map of Point Roberts, WA, and how it only connects by land to one country, Canada.
Esmy Jimenez / KUOW. Created with datamapper

Brokers said the five-square mile peninsula is newly attractive to remote workers, second home buyers, as well as semi-retired folks looking to relocate to what is essentially a gated community with fewer pretensions. Home and condo prices in Point Roberts shot up over the past year at a faster pace than in the wider area, but are still lower than those on the U.S. mainland or in the adjacent Vancouver, British Columbia region.

Across all of Whatcom County, Washington, the median price of homes sold in July 2021 was $525,000, up 24% compared to the same month a year earlier. For Point Roberts, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service pegs the median price of homes sold last month at $405,000, up 70% from the median of the small number of sales recorded in the pandemic summer of 2020. The real estate company Redfin reported an even higher year-over-year price increase in Point Roberts on a limited number of sales in July. Competitor Zillow deviated to the low side when it estimated an 18% one-year increase in home values (not necessarily equal to closed sales), in the process illustrating that standardized, complete market data is hard to come by for this zip code.

The U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential crossings in late March 2020 to reduce the spread of COVID-19. After that happened, the Port of Bellingham organized a temporary passenger-only ferry service to maintain connectivity to Point Roberts.

Pinckston said she would greet many home buyers at the Point Roberts dock and shuttle them to properties of interest. However, the twice-weekly ferry service was shut down this past week in the wake of Canada’s easing of land border restrictions to allow nonessential crossings by vaccinated Americans who can also show proof of a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of departure.

Blaine, Washington-based agent Chris Hughes of The Firm Real Estate said he has picked up numerous clients at Point Roberts’ grassy airstrip. It’s a short, but expensive hop on San Juan Airlines scheduled or charter service from Bellingham.

“Typically, by the time they’re flying in they have pretty much done a lot of research and are down to one or two homes they’re just comparing,” Hughes said. “Usually, we buy from that decision there.”

The healthy real estate market contrasts with the travails of other businesses in Point Roberts. The only supermarket received an emergency subsidy from the state of Washington this summer after the owner said it otherwise would have to close its doors because of too few customers.

Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce President Brian Calder said the Biden administration urgently needs to mirror Canada’s partial border reopening.

“Until our own government reciprocates and allows Canadians to cross the border into the US, our community cannot recover from the severe economic collapse we have been in for months,” Calder said in an emailed statement. “Canadians are the only lifeline that can help the few remaining businesses struggling to survive here.”

In an interview with public radio a week ago, Democratic Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (WA-01) said it has been a struggle to get “transparency” about the criteria the U.S. government is using to guide its next steps on border reopening.

“I continue to push the administration on the importance of reopening the border, in particular for Point Roberts,” DelBene said. “The uncertainty about when the border would potentially open has really hit those communities hard.”

Hughes said the ongoing border restrictions have changed the profile of house hunters in Point Roberts and property ownership.

“Eighty percent of the ownership is typically Canadian,” Hughes said. “This is starting to shrink into more U.S. No question the U.S. buyers have been the big, big difference in the Point Roberts market in the last year.”

Pinckston said she perceived there is still an “appetite from Canadians” for property in Point Roberts, but echoed seeing a big shift in demand to Americans currently living in places such as Seattle, Portland and California. Inventory remains tight, suggesting to her that existing Canadian second home owners are generally being patient and not unloading their inaccessible properties en masse.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.