If you have ever bought or sold real estate, you are undoubtedly aware of the lengthy and complex process it can be, and just how many elements and services must come together to make your transaction a done deal. Bennington and Windham counties are suffering from a shortage of a crucial piece to this puzzle: real estate attorneys.
The cause of the shortage is multifaceted but can be summarized as a greater volume of overall work to be done, and fewer attorneys in the area to take it on.
Floyd Amidon, an agent at Maple Leaf Realty in Bennington, has been in real estate for the past 18 months and has also worked as an insurance agent for over 15 years, and can speak to the flurry of market activity in Vermont after the emergence of COVID-19 in March 2020.
“There were a lot of folks looking for safer areas to live, or at least have a second home, and it created a real big influx in our market,” he said. “It was just the perfect storm of attorneys retiring a lot more, activity in the marketplace and people wanting to get it done quickly, so that they can either move or take possession of that property.”
The lack of attorneys to handle the workload isn’t necessarily a new problem but has just become exacerbated in recent years.
“The reality is, the number of attorneys who are qualified to handle real estate has been declining for the last decade,” said a Bennington-area lawyer who wished to remain unnamed. “I was tearing my hair out of my head long before COVID.”
More attorneys approaching retirement age in Bennington County and even a death of a local lawyer, for example, have caused the decline in attorneys available, and there don’t appear to be any younger people filling the gaps.
Law is still a growing profession nationally, according to the American Bar Association. That growth, however, has stemmed significantly since the turn of the century, while population has steadily climbed. Vermont is one of just six states to actually lose lawyers over the past decade, with a drop of 2.9 percent over that period.
Compounding the numbers issue are also the increased demands of the profession.
“Not all closings are alike, and there are various situations that make things more complex. More and more people moving from out of town, different lenders, title insurance requirements,” the attorney said. “There are a lot of things to real estate that they don’t teach you in law school.”
Abi Gregorio, who has been an agent with Maple Leaf Realty for almost six years, agrees with the assessment that expecting more of the attorneys has been part of the problem. The bottleneck for lawyer services isn’t just from the fast and furious movement of real estate in itself, but the increased role of the attorney in handling homes for sale by owner without a real estate agent.
“There are so many transactions that are happening that we're not even aware of, because sellers are like, ‘It's such an easy time to sell my house. Why do I need to pay real estate commission?’" she said. “And so now the attorneys aren't just acting as an attorney. They're also acting as a representative for a seller or a buyer. So they're doing part of our job, and they don't like it.”
Clients are missing out on a lot of services provided by real estate agents — that don’t fall under an attorney’s purview — while also magnifying the task for already over-burdened attorneys.
“We take so many of the emotional calls through the whole process, when we're dealing with inspection, renegotiation, appraisal issues. We go to the attorneys only for legal points in the contract,” Gregorio said. “All of [their] hours are getting sucked up by our work, and they’re stressed out by that.”
In Gregorio’s experience, she hasn’t seen a lot of closings actually delayed by the shortage of attorneys, but keeping up with clients’ timetables has forced her and many area realtors to seek help from out of town.
One prominent firm that has been handling a lot of real estate transactions in Southern Vermont is Peet Law Group in South Burlington. With a much larger staff of seven attorneys and 17 paralegals, Peet Law is much more flexible and able to accommodate eager buyers and sellers who want a deal done quickly, but the firm is still feeling the strain.
“Real estate has changed a lot in recent years. Federal rules on how to go through the process of mortgage approval have definitely made it more complicated,” said Fred Peet, who founded Peet Law Group in 1995. “It’s not as big of an issue for us as in rural areas, but with the COVID spike and lowered interest rates, there’s been a struggle to keep up.”
Gregorio said working with attorneys up north has gone well, but that she tries to keep business local. It makes things run smoother at times just because local attorneys have knowledge of the area, she said.
“There are idiosyncrasies and quirks about certain areas here. For instance, Old Bennington, where you have these sort of very old agreements about sewer lines and water access.”
Peet and Gregorio also said that the state of Vermont is in even more dire need of appraisers than attorneys when it comes to closing on real estate deals. The anonymous Bennington attorney echoed a similar sentiment.
“I would argue it’s not just real estate attorneys, or even attorneys in general, that we’re facing a shortage of,” they said. “It’s dentists, tradespeople, teachers … fill in the blank. Try getting into a doctor right now.”
Matt Harrington, director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce since 2016, is working hard on Bennington County’s dearth of young professionals. In 2018, the chamber launched a pilot program of Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay to Stay” initiative, aimed at attracting more working families and young professionals to Vermont to start businesses or work locally — including filling shortages like those facing the real estate industry.
The chamber began attracting families to Bennington from all over the U.S. (and even a few outside the country) for weekend visits with extensive networking opportunities and a taste of what Vermont is all about. They had to get creative when the pandemic hit, but still held monthly meetings via Zoom with potential transplants interested in the Green Mountain State.
“We’ve just kept that conversation going,” Harrington said. “What is great about all this is we keep adding to our big list of people interested in Southwestern Vermont.”
Adding to Harrington’s optimism, for the first time in two years, the chamber was able to bring families into Bennington again over Memorial Day Weekend, and has another such weekend planned for the Northshire area in November.
“We put out a survey after asking: ‘How likely are you to move to Vermont after this experience?’” Harrington said. “The feedback was on a scale from 1 to 10, and basically 100 percent was in the 8 to 10 range, which is exactly what we want to hear from this.”
Harrington cited that survey as strong evidence that families are definitely interested in moving to Vermont, but it is challenges such as the shortage of housing and the upheaval of a cross-country move to an unfamiliar area that has been to the program’s detriment.
Harrington also said funding has been a challenge for the chamber’s efforts in the “Stay to Stay” program, as the state was allocating some federal COVID relief funds to help but no longer is. This has limited the staff that the chamber can dedicate to the cause, as well as marketing for the initiative, which to this point has mostly reached potential Vermonters just by word of mouth.
Harrington is aware that some Southern Vermonters might be asking why he would encourage people to move here while the area lacks sufficient housing.
“We're creating a pipeline of people,” Harrington explained. “In my mind, they’re our next board of education, our next select board members, our next volunteers. These people are not passive people that just come and take from a community. These are people that come to a community and give back. … If and when housing opens, we're going to have a whole bank of very active citizens that want to become citizens of Vermont.”