Uncommon Ground

Running On Empty

Montana’s home shortage is making housing a luxury with anyone lucky enough to own a piece of the Flathead suddenly wealthy

By Mike Jopek

The growling started soon after I put on the studded tires. Later I thought it was a rear wheel bearing humming. The mechanic informed me the groan originated from the rear differential. Great, I thought, sounds expensive, hope parts are available. The joys of pandemic-era cars.

I crawled under the old rig and changed the gear oil in the rear end, hoping this would soothe the beastly sound. It didn’t. Suddenly looking at a new differential or maybe new gears, I decided to check options.

I contacted several dealers to check car availability. The local dealer had one all-wheel-drive in transit, wrong model, with new inventory available next year. Missoula said he had dozens in transit in mid-December but all were reserved.

The Spokane dealer informed me that the two models I asked about were just sold and new ones weren’t due until after Christmastime. Same no-inventory story in Great Falls and Helena. 

Gallatin said that he’s got one coming into the dealership next month that could be reserved with a $1,000 deposit. No guarantees on factory incentives as they change monthly and the rig isn’t yet at the dealer. 

There’s no negotiation. Simply, do you want it. You can’t sit in it or test drive it, nor do you get any choice of color or options. I did get a personalized video. It’s simply yes or no. I opted for no, now anyway, and will probably regret it as the prices are several thousands above the costs advertised just months earlier.

My plan of looking at new cars sputtered with no inventory. Pandemic-pricing also far outpaced the profit margins from the farm goods we grow by working the land.

I’ve also been keeping an eye on recent housing availability. My family is seeking a small, single floor place to live in town. The rent and purchase prices are eye-popping to anyone making a living with their hands, costs seemingly doubled in mere years.

Never mind the exorbitant prices, there’s nothing available. The scant inventory of houses, condos, townhouses, or raw land that come onto the hot market are quickly seared with cash offers. 

Montana’s home shortage is making housing a luxury with anyone lucky enough to own a piece of the Flathead suddenly wealthy. The recent tax bill homeowners paid illuminated the new valuation reality. 

There’s an ongoing clash for the soul of the valley between people who’ve lived here a while and those seeking to buy into the market to become a part of the community. Some want to stop new development that messes with quality of life and denigrates the sense of community. Others seek to protect water quality or slow down the endless, fast traffic.

Many locals make a good living building homes, doing the work of construction, or the ancillary services associated with development. We need more cars built in America and more homes for Flathead people to live in. 

Our valley grew up rapidly. It’s just the beginning. Growth boundaries or car shortages won’t bring down prices. Feels more like a bidding war for both autos and houses. That’s hard on working people. We’re running on empty and everyone suffers.

Many lands, especially watersheds, warrant protecting. Other areas are optimized for more, smarter, and innovative housing. The yesteryears are fond memories and many of us miss those days when living felt less chaotic.

Americans are migrating and not much will slow the caravan no matter how much living here cost. Every plane full of visitors wants to live here. I get it, who wouldn’t, the rest of America is not nearly as nice as the Flathead.

The pandemic brought us first-world shortages no one anticipated. Montana is facing many hard choices on what our future holds on essentials like living and driving.

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