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061211-Vacation-Homes-illustration

Doug and Sue Davidson are native Minnesotans who spent five years on the Montana Hi-Line, from 1976 to 1981. She was a nurse at Liberty County Hospital; he helped a small group of local people found the Chester Alliance Church, and served as its first pastor.

It was a special time in all their lives.

"I was fresh out of college and green as they come," Doug says. "We laughed together, grew together, cried together and had a blast together."

He and Sue also made the 240-mile round trip to Glacier National Park every chance they got.

"We fell in love with it," Doug says. "God was just having fun when he made that place."

In the three decades since they moved on from Chester, their careers have taken them many places - to China, even, for five years - and most recently, to Mesa, Ariz., where Sue is a nurse for Hospice and Doug just retired as pastor at Trinity Baptist Church.

Over the years, however, Glacier has remained a constant in their lives.

"We've been coming back ever since," Doug says. "We've been here 12 years now, and every year but one or two we've made it a point to get in the car and drive 1,300 miles as fast as we can to hang out and backpack."

This summer will be a busy one for the Davidsons, what with a daughter getting married next weekend and an extended family reunion in July.

But when they do make it back to Glacier in 2011, they'll have a place to stay.

They recently closed on a deal to purchase a second home, outside Coram.

***

The Davidsons are joining an important part of the economies of several communities across western Montana, most of them smaller ones.

According to a University of Montana researcher, vacation homes in Montana increased by 14,000 units, or 59 percent, between 2000 and 2010, to more than 38,000.

More than half that growth occurred in just five of the state's 56 counties - Flathead, Madison, Lake, Gallatin and Lincoln.

"It's only true in parts of Montana," says Jim Sylvester, an economist with UM's Bureau of Business and Economic Research who compared data from the 2000 and 2010 U.S. censuses. "Most of Montana has very little seasonal housing."

The places that do, though, tend to have a lot.

One out of every three houses in Bigfork and Seeley Lake is a vacation home, according to Sylvester's research.

Compare that to the city of Kalispell, where it's barely more than 1 in 100, or the city of Missoula, where it's not even 1 in 100.

In Lake County, nearly one in every four homes is a second, or seasonal, home, a number pushed by the summer residences on Flathead Lake.

While only 1.5 percent of the houses in Ronan are seasonal, 81 percent of those on the lake's King's Point are. So are 67 percent of the homes on Finley Point, and more than half of the housing units in Rollins and Dayton.

There are a couple of things Sylvester's numbers don't show: How many of the vacation homes are owned by Montanans compared to out-of-state residents, and anything related to price.

A seasonal home can be anything from a one-room cabin lacking both running water and electricity, to a multi-million-dollar mansion. Putting dollar figures to seasonal-home numbers would require exhaustive research into property tax records.

"I was just playing around, and made a spread sheet" to compare the census data, Sylvester says. "I thought the numbers were interesting, so we put out a (news) release."

***

Here's some of what Sylvester found.

Madison County, home to Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin, has the highest number of vacation homes, percentage-wise, in the state at 41.8. Almost 2,900 of the county's 6,940 residences sit vacant part of the year.

Granite County (think Georgetown Lake and Discovery Ski Area) is right behind at 41.7 percent.

Meagher County, where hundreds of cabins dot the U.S. Highway 89 corridor through the Little Belt Mountains north of White Sulphur Springs and near Showdown Ski Area, is third at 33.4 percent.

Next is Lake County at 23.9 percent.

The numbers grow considerably tinier in eastern Montana, and in most of the more populated counties. It's just 0.6 percent in Yellowstone County, for instance.

When it comes to communities, nothing can touch tiny Silver Gate, just outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

There, 132 of the 149 homes, or 89 percent, are seasonal.

Big Sky is 65 percent vacation homes, Swan Lake 63, West Glacier 58, Rollins 56, Dayton 53, Yaak 50.

Other western Montana figures include Rexford (45 percent), Condon (44), Flathead Lake's Rocky Point (43), Big Arm (41), Hungry Horse (38), and Seeley Lake, Lincoln and Woods Bay (all 35).

Big Sky, West Glacier, Seeley Lake and Bigfork lead the state's best-known resort communities.

Others include Lakeside (29 percent), Red Lodge (25), Whitefish (19), West Yellowstone (17), Polson (11), Philipsburg (11) and Gardiner (10).

Vacation homes and cabins represent 15 percent of the housing units in Lincoln County, 14 percent in Flathead County, 13 percent in Mineral and Sanders counties, 6 percent in Ravalli County and 4 percent in Missoula County.

In Coram, where the Davidsons purchased their vacation home, 17 percent of the housing units are seasonal.

***

Most of the 59 percent increase in vacation homes statewide happened before the recession, according to UM.

But Realtor Scott Hollinger of RE/MAX of Bigfork says Canadians have helped to keep the interest in vacation homes up in the northwest corner of Montana.

"Alberta has an unbelievable economic dynamo going," Hollinger says. "They're here, and they're buying. People forget that 4 1/2 hours away from us are several million people in a strong economy."

That helped Flathead County's seasonal housing increase 83 percent in the last decade, from 3,570 units to 6,542.

Madison County had the biggest jump, a whopping 153 percent, most of it before the recession. The number of vacation homes there grew 1,755 units, from 1,144 in 2000 to 2,899 in 2010.

Lake County's grew by 1,273 homes to almost 4,000, a 47 percent increase.

"Sales-wise, the number is a small portion of our volume," Hollinger says, "but around here they tend to be high-end sales that bring in fresh outside money."

***

Doug and Sue Davidson spent three years looking for a second home near Glacier Park.

"Susie and I honeymooned in Glacier," Doug says. "Our son-in-law and daughter met in Glacier when they were both working there one summer. His parents met in Glacier the same way."

The Davidsons' only grandchild, 13-month-old Bowman, was named for a lake in the park.

Inheritances from both their parents made it possible to look for a second home in Montana, in the $175,000 to $310,000 range, Doug says.

"Although Susie was not wanting to pay $300,000," he adds.

They weren't interested in a condo, but they did want a place big enough to hold their growing family, and one that offered some privacy.

What they got was "a well-built place, about 1,800 square feet, three bedrooms with knotty pine cabinetry and knotty pine doors" on 2 acres, Doug says. "It's delightful. There's only one other house you can see from the property, and you have to go outside and look around the garage to do it."

They first looked at it three years ago, but it was outside their price range.

By this year, however, the price had dropped far enough below their top end that they not only could afford it, but afford to furnish it and do some remodeling to improve the views and still stay well below $300,000.

But don't tell anybody - it's a secret.

Next weekend they'll surprise their daughters - Trisha and her husband are teaching in Bangladesh; Angela and her fiancé get married June 18 - with keys to a house outside Glacier National Park, and an open invitation to use it any time they please.

It joins the 38,510 homes in Montana that are only used for part of the year - and, like most of the others, represents a dream come true for its owners.

"I'm looking forward," Doug Davidson says, "to refreshing my soul up there."

 

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