COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho - The housing market in the Northwest is finally showing signs of recovery. But there’s one sector of real estate that never let up during the economic downturn. Real estate agents who sell what’s known as “survival realty” are experiencing boom times. A remote corner of the Northwest has become a hotspot for home buyers wanting to ride out disaster – natural or otherwise.
Realtor Michael White guides me from room to room in a spacious three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home. Let’s just say it’s somewhere in north Idaho.
This ‘70s era house not only has a bidet in every bathroom, it has enough space to entertain multiple families.
But there’s something a little different about this house.
“All-metal doors double-bolt lock, ” White points out.
Plus, a secret escape tunnel, double light switches for the two sources of electricity. And there’s something else. The house doesn’t have any windows. That’s because it’s underground.
“Imagine to yourself a cement pyramid underground with the flat top of the pyramid at ground level," White says. "The guy was prepared for every aspect of living without society.”
Michael White is one of several real estate agents in north Idaho who have come to specialize in survival properties – not so much because they went looking for these clients, but because the clients came to them.
“They’re looking for live water,” he says. That’s like a creek or spring.
“They’re looking for being hidden, well hidden from any roads, and they’re looking for redundant power systems.”
Another important feature is what’s known as “defendability.” You may have heard about “zombie” real estate. That’s code. Among survivalists, “zombies” are the hoards of un-prepared city folk they predict will loot survivalist retreats.
White says some agents may find these kind of buyers, who often want to pay in all cash, or even gold, kind of, well, crazy.
But for him, “It’s what’s been keeping me going, the survivalist buyers, and kind of with the rumors and predictions of 2012 being some sort of ‘end date,’ it’s just been growing ever since.”
There aren’t hard numbers on how well this type of real estate is doing. There’s no MLS category for “survivalist property.” And very few actually have underground bunkers. But the north Idaho real estate agents we talked to said their top selling properties right now have lots of acreage and self-sustaining features. It can be anything from off-the-grid cabins to million dollar homes with granite counter tops.
This pyramid shaped home in north Idaho was built out of concrete and steel beams, entirely underground. In this picture, an open hatch above the kitchen allows natural light in. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Chris Walsh owns Revolutionary Realty, based in Coeur d’Alene. He says his business is just vertical.
“And it’s not me, it’s not because of me, it’s not because I’m a genius," he says. "It’s because north Idaho has become America’s redoubt, its place of refuge.”
Walsh says the rule about location, location, location is just as true for survivalists – or, as he prefers, preppers. And in terms of location, north Idaho offers a smattering of lakes, swaths of forests, and little chance of hurricanes, earthquakes or drought.
“Every time that something bad happens, my phones ring," Walsh says. "Hurricane hits Florida. I get calls. Shooting in West Virginia. I get calls.”
And how many calls after the shooting in Aurora, Colo.?
“Got 19,” he says.
But the disaster many of his clients are worried about is an economic one.
“It doesn’t matter what their politics are or anything," Walsh explains. "They all believe the same thing and that is there is impending financial collapse, if you will, coming to the American dollar.”
Richard Mitchell has seen this cycle before.
“When there is public discourse which questions the functions of major institutions, particularly government, then it sets up this narrative.”
Mitchell is a retired sociology professor from Oregon State University. He wrote a book called “Dancing at Armageddon” based on his experience embedded with survivalist groups in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He says, back then southern Oregon saw a similar real estate boom. And these buyers are not who you might expect.
“They are well to-do, they are urban, they are educated, they are professionals," Mitchell says. "They are not down-and-out country bumpkins -- the caricature of the pick-up truck, the chainsaw and the shotgun and the rifle. That, in fact, is not the reality.”
And Mitchell says the survivalists he’s met come from the left and the right. No matter what their motivation, most prefer to keep their anonymity. Real estate broker Chris Walsh says he has signed more than 30 confidentiality agreements with clients who don’t want to be known as survivalists. They’re also pretty media shy.
But it turns out -- Walsh has become a prepper too.
“The first few preppers I met I thought were a little bit nuts. And I do meet the occasional crazy. I do. They’re out there. But the majority of them aren’t. The majority of them -- you’d want to sit down and have dinner with them because they’re interesting people. They’re awesome.”
Walsh argues that the prepper sentiment is actually widespread – whether it’s in the form of organic gardening or stocking up on food or learning to can fruits and veggies.
As for his business, Walsh expects another bump in sales after November. He thinks the presidential election -- whichever way it goes -- will keep the calls coming in.
On the Web:
Survival Realty listings:
Michael White, Realtor - Coldwell Banker:
Years’ worth of dehydrated food, belonging to the original owner, was found in this underground home in north Idaho. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Chris Walsh - Revolutionary Realty:
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network