David Tesher and his wife, Anita, had a couple of goals as they were shopping for a vacation home.
They wanted a place where they could relax with their young family and spend quality time together away from their busy lives in New York. And they also wanted a place that had a little more financial promise than the Internet stocks that proved such short-lived investments a few years ago.
Tesher, his wife and two young daughters found all of that four years ago in the pricey real estate developments that have been erected in recent years around the base of Stratton Mountain, four hours from their home on suburban Long Island.
Nowhere in the country is the trend of second-home ownership more profound than in the rural mountains of northern New England. Maine has the highest percentage of second homes in the country, followed by Vermont.
The region's attraction is driven by the millions in metropolitan Boston and New York who can easily escape to the mountains, leaving behind careers and concerns about terrorism. They find much more affordable real estate that they can buy more easily by using equity they've built up in their primary home in the past decade or so.
Like Tesher, millions of people had bad experiences with the Internet stock bubble. They began buying real estate as a safer investment, pushing second-home ownership to unprecedented levels.
"The returns, because real estate prices have been going up so rapidly, are attractive," said economist Thomas Kavet, who follows real estate trends as an adviser to the state Legislature, among other clients.
The huge investments in the northern states has been a mixed blessing. Although people in the states appreciate the jobs created by multimillion-dollar developments like those ringing Stratton, the condominiums and other homes drive up the cost of all real estate. People who live and work in a place like Stowe in northern Vermont, for example, have found it increasingly difficult to buy a home.
The fear for developers is that speculative buying can lead to the kind of real estate bubble that economists are warning is building. Such bubbles can pop, leading to foreclosures or vacant housing.
Given there has been such price appreciation over the past few years -- as much as 18 percent some quarters in Vermont -- Vermont Economy Newsletter Publisher Arthur G. Woolf believes that most of those second-home buyers would be able to withstand even a 20 percent downturn with little or no harm.
"If it's only vacation homes, then those people take a capital loss. The houses are still there," he said.
Tesher of Manhasset, N.Y., said he plans to hang on to his two condos in Stratton, so he doesn't believe he's contributing to a bubble or a bust. But he does worry about buyers who have relied on interest-only loans, variable rate mortgages and other vulnerable financing schemes. They could precipitate a bust and he doesn't really want his investment to devalue, even if it's only on paper.
"For me, I feel comfortable now even if the market corrects 20 percent or more," he said. "I'm still at what I invested."