Americans buy second homes as a refuge

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Gardnerville, Nev., is a quiet piece of desert upland just over a mountain pass from the vacation mecca of Lake Tahoe. It is about as far from the tension and tragedy of 9/11 as an American can get - which is one reason realtor Kenneth Garber's phone "hasn't stopped ringing" since mid-September.

"We're getting calls from San Francisco and Seattle," he says. "They're saying: 'Find us something, thank you very much.' "

While hardly a mass migration from America's cities, real estate agents in outlying areas from California to the Hamptons are reporting a surge in interest from urban dwellers intent on finding a safe haven from terror in the skies and in the mail. It's a phenomenon that has left experts wondering if vacation retreats of the early 21st century will become the equivalent of bomb shelters in the 1950s.

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The budding trend runs the gamut. Some people are purchasing second homes as a refuge. Some are moving into seasonal homes they already own. A few are just relocating, period.

In Gardnerville, a community made up largely of primary residences, Mr. Garber says he's seeing three kinds of people interested in moving in: those near retirement who are grabbing their gold watches early, independent workers not tied to a specific office who are bailing out of West Coast cities, and couples buying land with the intent of building in the near future.

Some of the moving is merely temporary, tied to the latest biological or bombing scare. In late October, for instance, when federal authorities were warning of another possible terrorist attack, Jack Hangen was seeing families suddenly show up for a few days in the Hamptons on Long Island.

The owner of Agawan Realty in Southhampton says several potential homebuyers have inquired about local school systems, typically a non-issue for seasonal dwellers.

Let's pack quickly

The sudden interest in second homes, of course, isn't soley the result of people trying to placate their fear of another terrorist attack. In some cases, it's just been another catalyst.

"Mostly it's people who were thinking about making the move now accelerating their decision to do it," says Pat Campbell-White, a real-estate broker in Rehobeth Beach, Del. "The attacks just kind of pushed them over the edge."

Indeed, trying to pinpoint why people buy second homes isn't an exact science, anyway. Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine, believes the fear factor is often subtle and almost undetectable, since second home buyers themselves may not understand the roots of their decision.

He imagines thousands of couples nationwide before the bombing attacks discussing a second home in terms of a vacation retreat and gathering place for the family on holidays. After Sept. 11, it became more of a refuge.

Although people are naturally reluctant to admit a link between their domestic contingency planning and their concern about terrorism, there are telltale signs. "They give little clues with their phrasing," says Garber. "They'll say things like: 'We're interested in a small community that doesn't have a lot of industry and exposure.' "

Sociologists and demographers are reluctant to draw firm conclusions in regard to the nascent migration. But they imagine negative effects if large numbers of people begin floating between city and country. Among them: a diminished commitment to community - both in terms of volunteerism and financial support for such things as bond issues - and an economic jolt to urban businesses.

Others, like Christopher Hewitt, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, believes the outflow from metropolitan areas is more a trickle than torrent and in months ahead will ebb altogether.

He says experiences with persistent low-level terrorism in countries such as Israel and England show no evidence of mass migration out of cities. On the other hand, many wealthy Italians relocated to Switzerland during a rash of kidnappings in in the 1970s.

"It usually happens when people are really afraid, and I just don't see that in America, at least not yet," he says.

Already, a boom in second homes

The number of secondary residences in the United States was rising even before Sept. 11. They went from 5.5 million in 1990 to 6.4 million in 2000, some of that driven by the prosperity of the past decade. Mr. Francese believes that figure could climb to 9.8 million by 2010.

Two-thirds of the growth over the next decade is expected to come from the rapid increase in affluent 55-to-64 year olds, typical second home buyers, and independent workers eager to trade a desk at work for the deck of an A-frame.

"It's not hard to imagine further terrorist attacks enlarging the pool of motivated second-home buyers," he says.

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