With a population of 66,215, maritime-meets-urban Portland is Maine’s biggest city. That means that people who call this port city in the Pine Tree State home get all the perks of living in a lively hub while existing on the edge of wildness. While Portland may look as picturesque as a movie set, this is very much a working city. The largest tonnage seaport in all of New England, Portland’s waterfront area is home to bustling local fishing businesses and commercial shipping companies. Living in Portland means enjoying moody maritime skies, walking your dog on streets lined with Victorian mansions in the Old Port district, dining in warehouse-turned-restaurant establishments, and taking lighthouse tours whenever you please!
It’s no wonder there’s something of a rush to buy a house in Portland among people who want to love where they live! However, this charming city nestled in Cumberland County requires just a bit of ruggedness from its residents. Annual snowfall totals that are more than double the national average, combined with housing expenses that are 29% higher than the national average, mean that relocating to Portland won’t be a picnic unless you come prepared. The harsh weather here also means that there’s no room for being lax about home upkeep. Portland is a “weathered” city with a home stock that’s relatively old, so the city’s low rate of new home constructions could be concerning if you’re not the fixer-upper type.
Fortunately, we’ve interviewed insiders in the Portland housing market to prepare you to find your dream home in this resort-like “working” city by the sea! We’ve done the deep dive on how much you can expect to pay when you buy a house in Portland, which neighborhoods to focus on, which repairs to be prepared to budget for after your home inspection, and what living in a seaside city means for everything from basement moisture to flood insurance.
You’re not the only one eyeing Portland
According to HUD, permits for single-family homes have been on the rise since they hit a low of 1,100 in 2011. Although that number crept up to 1,500 permits in 2018, it’s still a far cry from 2004’s high of 3,100.
That means if you want to buy a house in Portland, you’re going to need to know how to spot a home with potential in a tight market that’s getting tighter. “Portland has become a hyper-competitive market. Under $400,000, it is a very, very competitive market,” shares Portland real estate agent, Jeremy Lock. In fact, he says, it’s not uncommon for a home to receive 27 offers after hitting the market.
The truth about how much house you can afford in Portland
In 2019, the median home price in Cumberland County rose to $330,000. That’s quite a bit higher than the Maine median home price of $225,000. In fact, Portland and the rest of Cumberland County have a significantly higher median home price than the 2019 national average of $231,000. The average monthly mortgage payment of a homebuyer in Cumberland County is $1,138, according to National Association of Realtors®’ data. For perspective, the median monthly rent for all rental units in Portland is around $1,200.
Extra costs can accumulate like fast-falling snow
Portland’s property taxes should be on your radar as you tally monthly homeownership expenses. The city levies property taxes using a mill rate of $23.31 (2020 to 2021). This rate represents the total dollars and cents owed per $1,000 in value on a home. As an example, a home possessing Cumberland County’s median value of $330,000 would mean $6,993 in property taxes annually. By comparison, the national annual average for property taxes is $2,375.
Don’t forget that Portland’s climate adds some built-in costs to homeownership. The fact that it’s not uncommon to get up to 79 inches of snow per year means you may need to pay out of pocket for plowing costs, which are typically about $50 per visit. Cold temperatures mixed with heavy scraping from a plow can do a number on your driveway. Be prepared to budget for crack repairs and repaving accordingly. Plowing and repair costs are also important to consider when looking at properties with longer driveways. Driveway repair costs average about $350 in Cumberland County.
An inside peek at Portland’s housing scene
Driven by the desire to own a charming antique home with decent square footage, people from places like New York City and Boston flock to buy a house in Portland. Of course, under this romantic vision of owning a farmhouse comes the reality of older mechanical systems, drafty windows and boilers that need updating. Browsing buyers in Portland should also prepare for the quirky Portland floor plan, consisting of multiple additions that have been tacked on over the years. In many cases, that’s a floor plan without much of a plan at all! Here are some questions to ask when checking out a home to get a picture of efficiency and code compliance:
- What is the average monthly heating cost?
- How old are the windows? Have they ever been replaced?
- What year was an addition added?
“They’re just a little choppy,” says Lock of the “connected” farmhouses that pepper Portland. The patchwork flow can be a little bit difficult to work through in many of these homes. Most homes in Maine are heated using boilers or furnaces. Finding a home with an energy-efficient upgrade can be a big deal in a state where mean annual winter temperatures range from 15 to 20 degrees. Unfortunately for anyone looking for storage, older homes tend not to have the grand closets that many newer homes have. However, some of the older farm-style homes do have large walk-in pantries. Nearly all Portland homes have attics and basements that can be converted into storage or living spaces with some work.
Red flags to avoid in the Portland real estate market
“The stock is older and there is often a lot of deferred maintenance. Good inspection before purchasing is strongly recommended,” shares Steven Hayes of Kleen Sky, LLC. Echoing Lock’s sentiments about the trickiness of layouts in many Portland homes, Hayes shares that the most common requests his firm sees include wall demolitions for open layouts, kitchen remodels, and bathroom renovations.
With older homes come older roofs, lackluster heating systems, and gaps where rodents can burrow for shelter. During home inspections, gutters need special attention due to the way ice dams can form during snow or rain. This issue can create everything from wet basements and leaking roofs to rotting soffits and structural damage.
Due to the older ages of the homes here, homebuyers tend to discover that tiles, pipes, and insulation contain asbestos. This is important because it reduces your leeway for do-it-yourself renovations, unless you just happen to have an asbestos license. Mishandling components in your home that contain asbestos can cause serious health and environmental issues inside your home.
When making an offer on a Portland home, ancillary home inspections are important to consider. Due to Portland’s bedrock concentration, radon tests are essential for homebuyers. However, finding radon doesn’t necessarily need to be a deal-breaker.
“Every, every inspection I do, I encourage the buyer to do that. It’s an easy fix, but it’s not something that you want to expose yourself to over an extended period of time,” Lock shares on the topic of radon tests. He says nearly every home in Portland is attached to public water and public sewer, and advises potential buyers to ask for radon testing for both the home and water supply before signing on any dotted lines.
Lock also says those who buy a house in Portland need to be aware that they’re responsible for replacement costs for the sewer lateral that goes from a home to the street. In older homes, clay pipes can make line issues more common. Lock recommends that homebuyers ask to have their water pipes inspected for risks of things like root intrusions or age-related collapse due to the high cost — $10,000 in one case — of excavating to replace sewer connections.
Is there a hidden cost of living on the water in Portland?
For anyone seeking a waterfront property in Portland, FEMA’s requirements for flood insurance will likely apply. Annual premiums for flood insurance can top $4,000 for some properties. Portland homeowners should also scrutinize home policies for windstorm insurance. But those little extra costs are more than made up for by having beach access and the freshest seafood in the country all year round within easy walking distance.
Getting the lay of the land in Portland
Full of cobblestone streets lined with galleries, outfitters, and restaurants, Old Port is the heart of Portland’s historic district. In recent years, old factories and warehouses have transformed into breweries, pubs, and waterfront seafood joints like Liquid Riot, Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub, and the Highroller Lobster Company. You can pick up ferries to the Casco Bay Islands from Portland’s pier daily. The Portland METRO bus system is great for getting around the Peninsula loop, Congress Street, or Brighton Avenue. If you’re thinking of living without a car in Portland, you’ll want to stay closer to downtown, unless you’re comfortable walking several miles in snowy conditions laden down with groceries.
For Portland homebuyers seeking the walkability factor for getting to all of the great shops and dining downtown, look no further than the Peninsula. This generally refers to the streets within the borders of Washington Avenue, Baxter Boulevard, Forest Avenue, and Canco Road, that make up Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood. This cutout within the city offers beautiful homes, waterfront proximity, and a highly ranked elementary school. The benefit of living on the Peninsula is that you can pretty much walk everywhere. However, the city’s walkability is reduced a bit during periods of heavy snow. One other thing to consider is the importance of having a driveway or garage when living in some of the neighborhoods where properties are closer together. Portland often enforces street parking bans for plowing during the winter.
Portland’s East End and West End neighborhoods will move you closer to downtown while staying on the Peninsula. They’re considered pricey and posh, with some properties valued at over $1 million. While they’re ideal to hit if you’re looking for condos or townhouses, they aren’t the hot picks at the moment for millennial buyers or families.
Some areas off the Peninsula that are heating up include Rosemont, Deering Center, and Deering Highlands. If you’re chasing new constructions, getting into Portland’s outskirts is usually the strategy. Some areas to focus your search on for new builds include Stroudwater and North Deering. If you’re coming from a place where sprawling developments full of new homes are the norm, don’t expect to find that in Portland. New developments here tend to be in small clusters with just a handful of homes.
A closer look at Portland’s best neighborhoods
Considered by many to be the best spot to call home in all of Maine, Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood has a “sparse urban” feel that packs in coffee shops, high-end eateries, and gorgeous parks with whispers of rugged New England charm. Located minutes from both downtown and highway access, this is the place that younger professionals often eye when they buy a house in Portland. The well-lit streets and sidewalks here make it easy to walk your dog at night.
Covering Brighton Avenue to Forest Avenue, Deering Center has its own high school, middle school and elementary school. A portion of the University of New England’s Portland campus tucks into the neighborhood. While new residents come for the restaurants and nightlife, they stay for the amazing outdoor access. Deering Center is a gateway to both Baxter Woods and the Presumpscot River Preserve Trail. Mountain bikers, hikers, and casual walkers can explore more than 32 acres of pine-shaded trails that weave around the city. It’s a prime spot for someone looking for access to nature without paying for acreage.
Stroudwater and North Deering
Once a quiet hamlet, Stroudwater is still considered a suburb of Portland even though it is integrated into the city. It is home to the Portland International Jetport. However, most people know Stroudwater for being home to the historic homes nestled within the Stroudwater Historic District at the base of the Stroudwater River. North Deering is also considered a suburb of Portland. North Deering also contains the entire 48-acre Presumpscot River Preserve in addition to having its own retail center. Both neighborhoods are top picks for someone looking for larger, more contemporary homes with yards.
East End and West End
Home to both East End Beach and the Portland Observatory, Portland’s East End neighborhood is a hot ticket for people looking to enjoy the big attractions that bring tourists to Portland right outside their own doors. East End also touches the boundaries of the city’s historically Italian and Irish neighborhoods at Munjoy Hill. Home to the Western Promenade Historic District, the prim West End is famed for containing what many people consider to be the best collection of preserved Victorian homes in the United States. Home to the Maine Medical Center, this neighborhood is a top pick if you’re looking to live next to Portland’s largest employer.
Tips for buying a house in Portland’s competitive market
Portland has become a rising star among young professionals looking for somewhere to live that’s interesting and vibrant while still relatively affordable. Seeking refuge from the grind and high living costs found in cities like Boston and New York, many younger people are seeing Portland as a place that satisfies their desire for culture and opportunity, while also creating tenable options for putting down roots to start families.
While the remote-work trend has caused many more millennials to “bring their jobs” to Portland, this city’s rise was already in motion long before that. Insiders suspect that the remote-work revolution probably manifested instantly what would have taken five to 10 years to develop under other circumstances. While some people are bringing their jobs to here, others choose to buy a house in Portland to work in its thriving scenes for IT, bioscience, and biopharma.
Due to the competitiveness of the Portland real estate market, buyers need to come prepared. The single-most important thing if you want to buy a house in Portland is to have pre-approval in place to begin making offers when desirable homes within a buyer’s price range become available. It’s also important to begin working with a real estate agent to get access to listings. You can bet that any great home you’re seeing pop up on a popular listing site already has offers coming in!
Find a top buyer’s agent in Portland
If you’re ready to check out Portland’s inventory to discover a little maritime bliss with a rugged twist, experienced agents can walk you through every step. Portland’s top-tier agents buy and sell homes at a rate that’s 119.1% faster than their competitors. They can help steer you through a competitive market and challenges unique to this area. Connect with a top real estate agent in Portland today to start your search.
Header Image Source: (Stephen Walker / Unsplash)