Is it any surprise that places where it’s ‘Christmas all the time’ have been attracting a record number of buyers during the pandemic?
Nancy Schwab loves Christmas. Really, really loves Christmas.
“I have Santa collections from when I was little,” said Ms. Schwab, 62, a retired school administrator. Thus, it became a source of annual annoyance that decking the house with boughs of holly (and twinkly lights) was frowned upon in her Joliet, Ill., neighborhood until Thanksgiving had come and gone.
Almost two years ago, Ms. Schwab and her husband, Robert, a retired carpenter and contractor, began to contemplate relocating to a place with a vastly different feel. “We started researching, and Santa Claus, Ind., came up,” Ms. Schwab said of the town in the southern part of the Hoosier state that bills itself as “America’s Christmas Hometown.”
There’s plenty to back up the boosterism: Yule-themed businesses like Santa’s Toys, Santa’s Candy Castle, Santa Claus Haus, the Santa Claus Museum & Village and street names like Silver Bell Circle, Mistletoe Drive, Donder Lane and the main stem, Christmas Boulevard. Statues of St. Nick stand sentry at, among other spots, the post office, the town hall, Santa’s Lodge, a local hotel, and the Key Associates Signature Realty agency. The 2017 Lifetime movie “Snowed-Inn Christmas” was set — though not shot — in Santa Claus.
In October of 2020, the Schwabs headed to Santa Claus on a reconnaissance vacation, fell in love with what they saw and signed a contract to build their retirement home on a half-acre corner lot in Christmas Lake Village, a gated community that is home to three lakes — Holly, Noel and Christmas — and home to 90 percent of the burg’s 3,000 residents. This past June, the couple moved into a custom-designed three-bedroom ranch house.
“We looked at other towns near here that had equal value in terms of real estate, but they didn’t have that extra Santa thing. That was the deciding factor,” Ms. Schwab said. “This is an enchanting, darling place — just Christmas all the time.”
Partly because of the pandemic, partly because of the small-town appeal, partly because of the bang for the buck (comparatively low taxes, lots of services) and partly because of — well, let’s call it ho-ho-ho-cation, ho-ho-ho-cation, ho-ho-ho-cation — Santa Claus, Ind., and the similarly Santa-centric Frankenmuth, Mich., are enjoying a vogue.
(Santa-themed communities where real estate isn’t doing quite as well may feel a Grinch-like envy: Despite attractions like the towering Santa statue outside Santa Claus House, a toy store and sweet shop, there has been no uptick in home sales in North Pole, Alaska, where, according to its motto, “the spirit of Christmas lives year-round.” “We wish,” said Stacy Harvill, the managing broker at Madden Real Estate, in North Pole.)
The Schwabs’ house is one of 50 built in Christmas Lake Village in the last two years. “Typically, we average two or three annually,” said Chris Ambs, the subdivision’s property manager. And while it’s also typical to have 20 or 30 houses for sale in the Village at any given time, thanks to the high demand, there were only five available in mid-November, said the town’s treasurer, Kelly Greulich.
“We have a lot of people moving to Santa Claus from California, Illinois and Minnesota,” said Lisa Gengelbach, a broker at Key Associates. “A lot of them are retiring here, but there are families coming, too. We have great schools.”
Ms. Gengelbach added: “The name of the community is what brings a lot of people here, and the feel keeps them here. But it’s not over the top; it’s not gaudy. It’s not like everything is red and white.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Frankenmuth (population: 5,000) has had a similar influx of new residents, chiefly from the Detroit metro area, 80 miles south.
“Either they had family ties here or they’d heard good things about it, and because of Covid, they could work from home,” said Andrew Keller, an owner of JMW Real Estate, which has done more than $15 million in business in Frankenmuth this year, nearly a 50 percent jump over 2019. The price of a house, Mr. Keller said, has increased 12 to 20 percent in the last year and a half.
The local landscape, about three square miles, includes Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, which styles itself as the world’s largest Christmas store; canopies of lights on Main Street; and, from downtown to the north end of the city, 158 light-wrapped trees. The 2019 television film “A Christmas Movie Christmas” was shot — though not set — in Frankenmuth.
This past July, in search of more space, Lewis Kolak moved with his wife, Lauren, and the couple’s two young children from their home in Rochester, a Detroit suburb, to a 3,500-square-foot Tudor-style house on five acres in Frankenmuth.
“We had a quarter of an acre in Rochester, and a 2,400-square-foot house in Rochester. Nothing against that,” said Mr. Kolak, 43, a lawyer who grew up near Frankenmuth and still has family in the area. “But we wanted something different for our post-pandemic life.”
He continued: “I now have a dedicated office and study, because my wife and I work remotely, but we still have access to the Detroit market within an hour. When you walk down Main Street, it’s like a Hallmark movie. Is it a draw to live in a community like that? Absolutely. Is it the reason we moved? No, but it’s a value added.”
Young families like the Kolaks are attracted to the school system. Retirees, some of whom have moved into a new condo development in town, “are choosing our community because it’s fun and festive all the time,” said Jamie Furbush, the president and chief executive of the Frankenmuth Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau. “If you celebrate Christmas and you want to be in a place where that’s valued, we celebrate Christmas in a big way.”
Brian and Penny Wanless lived in Frankenmuth for 40 years and would have happily stayed forever, but four years ago, Mr. Wanless, an insurance specialist, was transferred to the western part of Michigan, and the couple settled in Lowell, a small city near Grand Rapids.
“The first Christmas there, I was saying, ‘Where are the holiday decorations? Where are they? And then I was thinking, ‘Don’t be negative, Miss Penny.’ The town did have lights up, but it didn’t have anything else,” said Ms. Wanless, 60, a teacher’s aide.
When her husband began working remotely during Covid, she saw her moment: “I told him, ‘I don’t want to spend another Christmas in Lowell.’”
The day after Thanksgiving, the couple closed on a ranch-style house in Frankenmuth, paying $459,000. “Here I am, 60 years old, and I’m driving around looking at the new Christmas lights in town,” Ms. Wanless said.
As for the Schwabs, they recently bought a 600-pound concrete Santa statue; it’s a permanent addition to their front yard.
“We couldn’t have done that in Illinois,” said Ms. Schwab, who began decorating for the holidays — ropes of lights on the wrought-iron fence, red and green spotlights illuminating the trees on their property — in mid-November.
“Our new neighbors here are saying, ‘Do it early,’” she added. “One of them told me, ‘Nancy, you can leave things up all year.’”