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5 Things a Maine Newcomer Should Know

Other than how to pronounce Passagassawaukeag.

Illustrations by Kelsey Grass
By Jennifer Van Allen
Illustrated by Kelsey Grass

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Kevin Gillespie to temporarily shutter the five restaurants he owns in Atlanta, he was left with plenty of time to think. The award-winning chef and his wife, Valerie, a corporate attorney who works remotely, had spent most of their adult lives hyperfocused on their careers. But as their 40th birthdays loomed, they felt something was missing.

“We took a step back and realized we aren’t spending enough time really living our lives — we’re working all the time,” Gillespie says. So they started house-hunting in midcoast Maine, where they’d vacationed in the past, envisioning living there part of the year.

“The beauty of Maine is so startling, it’s hard not to fall in love with it,” he says, “but I also love the close-knit community of artists and entrepreneurs that I can totally envision being a part of.”

To hear real estate agents tell it, Gillespie is part of a wave of former visitors considering a move to Maine more seriously than ever. Some are motivated by the usual draws: the woods and waters, the relaxed pace, the creative communities. Some are enticed by the state’s low population density and, relatedly, its comparatively low number of COVID-19 cases. Inquiries from prospective buyers are coming in all across the state.

“We’ve been inundated with calls from out-of-state buyers from as far as California,” says Lehrle Kieffer, a broker with RE/MAX North in Caribou. “People want to get out of the crowded metro areas to places where they’re not in close contact with others.”

From one region of Maine to the next, the cost of living, local job market, and education and health care resources can vary substantially. A good real estate agent can shed light on all this and more. But regardless of where a would-be Mainer might settle, these few pointers from local experts and recent transplants might be the keys to finding your place and settling in.

1. Embrace the rural — after some research.

Portland, Maine’s marquee metro, has gotten plenty of national ink for its liveability (and restaurants, culture, business climate, etc.). But buyers too focused on the Forest City can overlook similarly appealing, more affordable, and often nearby towns. 

Illustrations by Kelsey Grass

“People get hung up on headlines and don’t realize you can be a few communities down the road and still have ease of access to the city,” says Teddy Piper, a broker with the David Banks Team in Portland.

The trick, say Piper and others, is to do your homework before making a bid. Determine a town’s mill rate for property taxes (the Maine Department of Revenue maintains a town-by-town list online). Look at what services a town provides: Do you want a robust local rec department and a library? Does the town have its own police and fire departments, schools, and trash collection? In many areas of Maine, those kinds of services are regionalized — not a bad thing, necessarily, but something you want to understand before you buy.

Research the details of broadband connectivity, especially in this era of working and schooling from home. Maine voters approved a $15 million bond to expand broadband access in June, but that work is in its early stages. It’s something Susan Beemer wishes she’d have further investigated before moving to North Searsport from Northampton, Massachusetts, four years ago. Her husband telecommutes. 

“When the satellite doesn’t work, and it’s pouring rain, he has to go into town,” she says. “And when he has a video meeting for work, that almost always means going into town.”

All the same, don’t dismiss locales that may seem far flung. DC native Zanna Heidrich, an information systems engineer who works remotely, moved to Caribou with her two sons in 2017 after evaluating a 40-point list of quality-of-life indicators. She was attracted by low crime, low taxes, and the ability to live a block from downtown.

“I wanted a place where I could just let my kids go play outside and not worry if they’re safe,” she says. 

2. Get to know old houses (and old traditions).

Illustrations by Kelsey Grass

Maine has the nation’s oldest housing stock, so even if you don’t nurse HGTV fantasies of making over a rambling farmhouse, chances are you’ll have some fixing up to do. Issues common to Maine homes include knob-and-tube wiring, century-old sewer lines, asbestos insulation, and radon, says Hannah Holmes, a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty of Greater Portland (and a columnist for our sister mag, Maine Homes). Perhaps more so than elsewhere, it’s important to work with seasoned home, plumbing, and electrical inspectors before you buy. 

“They deal with these crazy old technologies every day,” Holmes says. “They know what to look for.”

In the COVID era, many buyers are bidding on homes sight unseen. But if your fixing-up plans may involve expansion, you’ll want to pay a visit to a community’s code enforcement department, to scout zoning regulations that could impact your plans. That’s also where you’ll learn whether there’s a popular snowmobile route within earshot of your house, say, or maybe a fertile hunting ground. 

“If there’s a 200-year-old tradition of hunting in your area,” Holmes says, “that’s not going to change any time soon.”

3. Learn to love winter.

Maine gets more snow and colder temps than any other East Coast state (see for yourself — the Maine Climate Office hosts browsable charts of historical averages). But if you don’t like the weather, you can always zip over to a different part of the state. Temps vary by 10 degrees, on average, between the north and south, state climatologist Sean Birkel says. And Maine’s inland and mountain regions get more and drier snow than along the coast.

Illustrations by Kelsey Grass

Galen Weibley, who moved to Presque Isle last year, was surprised to discover that Aroostook’s comparatively dry powder was much more pleasant than the slushy muck he left behind in Pennsylvania.

“I had this misconception that winter would be unbearable here” he says. “It really wasn’t.”

It is long, though. Some high and/or northerly parts of the state may not see a final frost until well into June. Presque Isle got more than 12 inches of snow last May, killing all of Weibley’s tomato plants. (“Next year,” he says, “I’ll wait a little longer to start the garden.”)

For active types, the long winters are a boon. Skiing, snowshoeing, and skating are big in communities all across Maine. Organizations like WinterKids incentivize family adventure with discounts on gear, lessons, lift tickets, and more. Cross-country skiing is an institution, and many farms groom trails across their winter fields. Snowmobile trail systems are immense (and, where permitted, a boon to fat-tire bikers as well). Pond hockey is big. 

Some urban transplants who found big-city winters a grind to get through embrace it once it’s easier to take advantage of adventure opportunities. “I enjoy winter so much more here,” says Margot Rutledge, who moved to Yarmouth from the Boston area four years ago. “I just walk out my door and walk in the woods near my home.”

Some considerations: Got a long driveway? Find a local plow service. Power outages happen — it’s wise to have a generator or backup source of heat. Mainers love their woodstoves. If you get one, you’ll need a reliable firewood supplier and a primer on the finer distinctions between seasoned and kiln-dried wood. Oh, and it’s delivered as a giant pile in your driveway, so you’ll need some patience and constitution for stacking (and possibly splitting).

4. Don’t expect perpetual Vacationland.

Illustrations by Kelsey Grass

The truth is, you won’t spend every weekend schlepping to Acadia, Katahdin, or the southern beaches. Shore dinners will likely be few and far between. Activities that are vacation highlights quickly become sporadic pleasures when Vacationland becomes home. You may even find yourself avoiding favorite haunts until the tourist traffic thins out. But thanks to a robust network of land trusts and state and local conservation programs, you can count on finding pristine woods, unheralded peaks, and/or little-visited beaches close to home. To see what’s in your favorite neck of the woods, the Maine Land Trust Network is a good place to start.

5. Take the stoic rep with a grain of salt. 

Illustrations by Kelsey Grass

You’ve heard the stories about taciturn Yankees, distrustful of people from away. These are not without basis, but anyone living in Maine can share stories of Mainers’ famously dry (and slightly absurdist) wit and about the kindness of strangers.

One week after I moved to Maine, an elderly librarian knocked on my door in the middle of a thunderstorm to deliver the cell phone I’d left while registering for a library card. She’d gone well out of her way because she thought I’d have a hard time getting out in the storm with a 2-year-old.

During her first winter in northern Maine, Zanna Heidrich says, a parade of neighbors stopped by during the first cold snap to make sure her heat was working, her pipes hadn’t burst, and she and her sons had warm coats and boots.

“The warmth of the community makes up for the cold of the winter,” she says. “That’s when I knew we were going to be just fine here.”