July-August 2021 | Home & Garden

A great escape

For some local residents, fleeing the suburbs during the pandemic meant buying a vacation home

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Michelle and Steve Dolge, who live in Chevy Chase, D.C., bought this property in Cambridge, Maryland, last year as a vacation home. Courtesy photo

In June 2020, Chevy Chase, D.C., resident Michelle Dolge traveled to Cambridge, Maryland, to help a friend prepare her second home for a pandemic-modified “beach week” visit by their teenage daughters and the girls’ friends. During her visit to the Eastern Shore town, Michelle recalled a house there that had caught her eye when she was browsing online real estate listings during the early weeks of the pandemic. The two women drove past the property so she could check it out. “I fell in love instantly,” Michelle says of the grand 1896 Victorian on the Choptank River. “I called my husband on the way home, and within three days we owned it.”

Michelle and her husband, Steve, have always worked together, meeting and marrying while on staff at WTOP radio in the District in the 1990s, and later owning and operating a CrossFit gym that they sold last fall. They have spent most of the last year dedicated to their latest team venture—the renovation of the 4,000-square-foot house called River Lure. Although their second home, designated as a historic property, underwent a major renovation a decade ago, the Dolges have given it an overall refresh with some repairs and cosmetic updates. “Steve’s gone from a CrossFit coach to a woodworker and painter,” Michelle says with a laugh.

They plan to rent the house when they’re not using it and decided to add a swimming pool in the spacious side yard overlooking the river to increase the property’s value and provide fun for their two grown children, ages 19 and 21. Old houses are full of surprises, and Michelle’s research revealed that the man who built the house was a schooner captain and oysterman who operated a wharf on his property. After the town’s historic commission approved their plans, the Dolges installed the pool, digging up a yard full of buried oyster shells.

During the past year, the couple fell in love with Cambridge’s natural beauty, historic charm, diversity and friendly people. “There are a lot of hip young adults pumping life into the town,” Michelle says. “Along with the weekenders from the Bethesda area, there’s a contingent of Capitol Hill people. People want an escape, and this is an affordable place.”

Steve and Michelle Dolge at their new Cambridge home, which they plan to rent out when they’re not staying there. Courtesy photo

Last year, everyone wanted to get away—from urban areas, from other people, from the pandemic. With COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions dragging on, second-home sales surged as residents of Montgomery County and elsewhere retreated to the beach, the bay, the mountains, or any place where they felt safe and had space to breathe.

At first, the pandemic created uncertainty in the real estate market, and agents were anxious. “Our market was strong before COVID, but in March 2020 things stopped,” says real estate agent Leslie Kopp of Long & Foster in Bethany Beach, Delaware, a popular vacation spot for county residents. “It felt very similar to the time just after 9/11.” Russell Bounds of Railey Realty in McHenry, Maryland, had a similar experience trying to sell homes near Deep Creek Lake. “My partners and I were worried because it got really quiet,” he says.

It turned out to be the calm before the storm because phones were ringing off the hook by May with buyers eager to purchase vacation homes. Historically low interest rates, coupled with repercussions from the pandemic, created the perfect conditions for a real estate boom. After months at home, people took stock of their lives and reevaluated their living situations. Some were financially able to pursue plans that had been on the back burner before the pandemic.

Liberated by remote working and schooling, some families were able to spend long stretches of time out of town. “So many of our part-time residents left the D.C. area to quarantine in Cambridge,” says real estate agent Mary Losty of Compass, who lives in the town. She’s seen a shift in the second-home market demographics, with a growing number of young families joining the typical middle-aged buyers who have an eye on retirement. According to Losty, millennials are discovering her town, with its plentiful outdoor activities and affordable housing stock. “They were never tied to the office like baby boomers were,” she says. “They’re looking for a lifestyle that allows them to walk their dogs at lunchtime and go kayaking after work.”

With flying not considered a safe option, buyers were looking for places within easy driving distance, no more than a few hours away. The Deep Creek Lake area was one of them. They flocked to the northwest Maryland region for summer water sports, skiing at Wisp Resort in the winter, and proximity to six state parks for hiking year-round. “People can leave the D.C. suburbs and get to their second home in a four-seasons resort in three hours,” Bounds says.

Listings in the area, which range from large lake houses to condos near the ski resort, are drawing multiple offers in record time and above asking price. The median sale price in Oakland, the home of Deep Creek Lake State Park, rose from $179,000 in the first quarter of 2019 to $336,500 in the first quarter of 2021, according to Bright MLS, a real estate listing service. “It’s an exceptionally good time for sellers,” Bounds says. “And it’s good for buyers who can get across the finish line, but they may have to be aggressive.”

There’s no end in sight for the beach boom, either. “I’ve never seen demand so high and inventory so low,” says Kopp, who has been selling real estate on the Delaware shore for more than 30 years. In the first quarter of 2021, properties in communities from Ocean City, Maryland, to Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware were averaging less than eight days on the market, a considerable drop from the first quarter of 2019, when the average number of days was nearly 50, according to Bright MLS. “You’d think that since people are getting vaccinated and things are opening up, they might not be as motivated,” Kopp says. “But they’re snapping up whatever they can afford.”

The new-home construction business at the beach is also strong. Marnie Oursler, president of Marnie Custom Homes, has been building high-end houses in Bethany Beach for 15 years and says she’s busier than ever. “The ability to work from anywhere has altered the buyer’s mindset,” she says. “Once employers realized that it was sustainable, it really helped our market.”

Oursler’s clients, 80% of whom are from Montgomery County, are eager to get their projects going, and the push has changed her usual September-to-May construction schedule. “Typically, we don’t start houses in the spring, but the pandemic changed that,” she says. “Now, people are willing to rent for the summer while their homes are built.”

Those buyers say they intend to spend more time at the beach, and Oursler has seen changes to the standard wish lists. “We are doing a lot of designated offices,” she says. In some cases, clients want two home offices, and plan to use one as a flex space for participating in Zoom calls and doing homework. There are more requests for home gyms and secondary TV rooms where kids can watch their own shows and enjoy their gaming devices. “We design for multigenerational living and think of ways for extended families to stay together comfortably,” she says.

In second homes, space planning for large groups is important. “We talk about the social aspect, and how a floor plan will work on a crowded July weekend as well as in the off-season,” Oursler says. Some staples of her homes include kitchens with two islands, bunk rooms for kids, and lots of outdoor living spaces and amenities such as decks, screened porches, built-in grills, firepits, and even in-deck pools.

Katey and Chris Brown of Bethesda are having their second home in Deep Creek Lake renovated with features geared toward entertaining and outdoor living. The property includes 269 feet of lakefront. Courtesy photo

Motivated by the desire for an out-of-town retreat during the pandemic lockdown, Silver Spring couple Teresa and Keegin Teare decided to pull the trigger on buying the beach place they’d always talked about. “That was the springboard for our longtime goal of buying a second property,” Teresa says. “The pandemic made us realize that life is too short to wait on these dreams.”

They chose Ocean City because Teresa vacationed there when she was young and her extended family still gathers there. Her aunt has owned a condominium on 128th Street for years “and we would go every summer,” she says. Her sister now owns a condo in the same building, so it became a family compound. The couple and their three children, who are 16, 14, and 10, wanted to join the party.

The Teares made an offer on a nearby condo last summer but were outbid. The market was still competitive in December when they found a three-bedroom, two-bathroom perch in the quiet north end of town, a block from the ocean and priced within their budget. They loved that it is close enough for the kids to go to the beach alone, without having to cross a major roadway. It’s also within walking distance of a large public park with lots of green space, paths, crabbing and kayak rentals. There were four other offers, but the Teares prevailed.

The low maintenance unit was just what they had in mind—newly decorated, fully furnished and move-in ready. They’re staying there as much as possible and renting it to family and friends when they’re not using it. “My sister’s kids are the same age as ours, so they can all play at the beach and ride bikes together,” Teresa says. “It’s so fun for all of us to be there together.”

Courtesy photo

In nearby Bethany Beach, Jen and Mike Burnstein are building a new house. The couple, whose primary residence is in Gaithersburg’s Crown Farm neighborhood, have owned a home in Bethany since 2008, but wanted to be closer to the ocean and the boardwalk. “We’d always poked around, looking at different houses,” Jen says, “but it wasn’t until last summer, after dealing with COVID and not knowing when we could travel again, [that] we felt the time was right.”

The Burnsteins were not interested in a renovation or demolition, which are common in Bethany because many of the older homes are not equipped for year-round living or up to current codes. So they were thrilled to find a rare empty lot near the town center, on the east side of Route 1. They bought it in July 2020.

Jen, who is into home design, found Oursler while researching builders and loved her aesthetic. “She has a vision, and her homes offer a design element that the others don’t,” Jen says. She recognized Oursler from her TV show, Big Beach Builds, which ran for two seasons in 2017 and 2018 on DIY Network.

The Burnsteins’ 3,000-square-foot house is under construction and will have a New England vibe with a gambrel roof, synthetic cedar shingles, and board and batten siding. Oursler’s plans are designed specifically for beach living, and this house will include many of her signature elements.

The ground level will have a garage, outdoor shower, secondary laundry room for washing towels and bathing suits, built-in storage cubbies, and a closet for chairs, umbrellas and coolers. “Everything you need for going to or coming from the beach is down there,” Oursler says. Including these elements on the ground level helps to enforce the cardinal rule of beach house owners—no sand comes into the main living spaces.

Jen characterizes the interior design scheme as modern coastal with pops of bright colors, wood ceiling beams and plenty of shiplap on the walls. “We are big art people, so I’m sure there will be lots of fun art around the house,” she says. The home will be three stories tall, with the kitchen, living and dining rooms on the second floor and the bedrooms up top. Ninety-five percent of the homes Oursler builds have elevators, which are convenient for hauling luggage and groceries, and allow homeowners to age in place. The Burnsteins are opting to build the framing for a shaft now, but won’t install an elevator unless it becomes necessary.

“This house is a good investment,” says Mike, who would consider retiring there in the future. For now, the couple’s plan is to enjoy their new vacation home with their 25-year-old son, extended family and friends. They also envision staying in Bethany more than in the past because Mike, a vice president for an IT company, can work remotely now. “I had worked in an office my whole career,” he says. “I don’t think I am ever going back.”

Like many people who buy homes near Deep Creek Lake, Katey and Chris Brown were first exposed to the area as renters. The couple, who moved from Chicago to Bethesda four years ago with their three boys, now 17, 15 and 13, stayed in a townhouse overlooking the lake during their first winter in Maryland.

They liked the snow activities and thought it would be a great place to visit in the summer, too. They were used to spending time at lakes in the Upper Midwest, and Chris has fond memories of summers at his uncle’s lake house in Wisconsin. “We love the year-round aspect of it, and the ability to keep our kids active and outdoors in every season,” Katey says.

The Browns started house hunting in the summer of 2019, saw dozens of options, and even lost out on one. That fall, they found a rare gem in a 1.76-acre property with 269 feet of lakefront. They got the house after making an all-cash offer with no contingencies, and even writing a letter to the seller. The 50-year-old chalet-style house measures 5,300 square feet and needs significant upgrades. They never considered tearing it down because they loved its rustic charm and saw an opportunity. “It was going to be more of a dream home than just a redo,” Katey says.

The couple hired Jim Rill of Rill Architects in Bethesda, and had been planning the renovation and meeting with a local contractor in early 2020 before the pandemic hit.

During the ensuing months, the Browns realized they wanted to spend as much time as possible at the lake, so they pressed pause on the remodel. Staying at the lake house proved a nice reprieve for the family, which spent weeks at a time enjoying swimming, boating, waterskiing and each other. “We loved being up there, away from it all,” Katey says. “If anything, those four months gave us more time to think about things we wanted to fix.”

The remodel finally started in October, with the most important projects scheduled first—upgrading electrical, fixing the roof, and expanding the boys’ bedrooms. The architect’s design takes advantage of the existing expanses of glass and adds a sliding window wall in the living area to capture the lake views and dramatic natural setting. With an emphasis on entertaining and outdoor living, the Browns plan to upgrade the patio and add a screened porch and a firepit.

The open concept of the vacation house plan is all about having spaces to gather. There will be a spacious kitchen with a big island and enough room for multiple families to congregate around a large table in the dining room. “It’s kind of like The Big Chill, but with kids,” Rill says with a laugh.

In anticipation of hosting a large number of visitors, the Browns have doubled the capacity of the hot water heater, installed two sets of washer/dryers, and added a secondary refrigerator to keep stocked with drinks. There will be a large mudroom with ample storage for ski equipment, life jackets and other items.

The Browns plan to take full advantage of remote working and were hoping to decamp to the lake starting in early July, when the renovation was expected to be completed. “If there is a silver lining to the pandemic,” Katey says, “it’s that it brought our family much closer together.”

Carolyn Weber lives in Silver Spring and frequently writes about architecture and home design.