North Georgia sees uptick in vacationers and investors
Atlantans who dream of a home in the mountains, take heed: this may be the time to get serious about buying property in north Georgia. What’s the draw of the north Georgia mountains? For a start, there’s the Chattahoochee National Forest, covering close to 750,000 acres.
In addition to breathtaking views and peaceful surroundings, there are plenty of family-friendly recreational opportunities, like rafting, boating and fishing. The Aska Adventure Trail Area, a 17-mile trail system designed for hikers and mountain bikers, is in Blue Ridge, and the Appalachian Trail begins at Springer Mountain in Fannin County.
These days, there are investment opportunities as well, something that homebuyers are beginning to realize – and act on.
“Our area is increasingly in high demand, and we don’t expect prices to go any lower or interest rates to stay at this level for long,” said June Slusser, President of Coldwell Banker High Country Realty, covering Blue Ridge, Ellijay, Hiawassee and Murphy, NC.
The market began a gradual improvement in 2010, Slusser said, and 2011 was a significantly stronger year for her company, with sold listings up 49 percent over the previous year. This year, she’s seeing sales increases over 2011. “It seems that the improvement in the Atlanta and Florida markets has had an impact here. Our available inventory is the lowest it’s been in over five years and we’ve also seen more new construction. In addition to units sold increasing, we’re seeing an increase in prices.”
She added that in many cases, buyers have recently sold properties elsewhere and are now either cash buyers, or buyers with significant down payments. She’s also working with investors who are anticipating a vastly improved real estate market in the next few years.
Nathan Fitts of Nathan Fitts & Team with Century 21 In the Mountains has seen the same pattern. “Things are insanely busy right now,” he said, “busier than the height of the market in 2007. The driving force for the surge is a decrease in the property values. Homeowners who once couldn’t afford Blue Ridge are finding that it’s coming more into their price range.”
According to Fitts, some people are taking money from other investments, like poorly performing 401Ks, and putting the capital into real estate because they feel it’s a safe time to invest in property.
Gary Kaupman, Buyers Agent with Atlanta Intown Real Estate Services who lives part time in the mountains and part time in Atlanta, echoed the observation. He said that what appears to have kept the north Georgia mountain real estate market flat for the past couple of years, rather than declining, is that folks who bought stocks on the way down in 2008-9 have gotten some excellent returns and moved part of that money into real estate.
“So far this year, at least 37.5 percent of the sales here have been cash, and there is still no better negotiating tool (at least for non-foreclosures) than an offer of cash with no appraisal contingency.” But he cautioned that things are not completely rosy yet. “When the Atlanta market was booming, people often used the increased equity in their primary residences to buy a second home. Even with a recovering market in Atlanta, we’re a long way from seeing that happen again.”
Kaupman pointed out that the percentage of foreclosed home sales so far this year is just 63 percent of what it was in the same period last year. It’s a significant number and, combined with the rest of the data, suggests that the market has bottomed out.
He calculated a median sales price this year (so far) of $159,000, and said that most lookers want $100-150,000 cabins, though compared to last year, many buyers are prepared to pay more. “Why? Because many of them thought they could buy a nice home in the mountains for 30 cents on the dollar like they could in Florida,” Kaupman explained. “And while there’s still plenty of looking in this price range, buyers tend to have more realistic expectations now.”
What’s changed the most in this market, he continued, is the number of people looking for a house that they can use for vacations and then retire to in five to 15 years. It’s a tough search, he warned, because they want the mountain cabin style architecture, and most cabins were not designed as full-time homes.
The hot properties, not surprisingly, are those with long-range mountain views or situated on water, and Fannin, Union and Gilmer counties show the strongest unit sales. As far as subdivisions, Coosawattee River Resort in Ellijay is extremely popular; it boasts lots of amenities, plenty of homes for sale and moderate prices. Lot and land sales remain stalled, offering exceptional opportunities for people who want to build now or in the future.
Fitts said that, in his experience, the sweet spot is $200-300,000 but there are also some great deals in the $750,000-$1.2 million range. Buyers come mostly from Atlanta, but there’s a good showing from Florida as well, and they range from single professionals and families with young children to retirees who want to escape the bustle of the city. In several cases, friends have pooled their money together to buy a mountain vacation home.
Things are only looking better for the real estate market in the north Georgia mountains. Slusser summed up the mood of many of her clients. “Boomers feel they’ve lost five to six years of their lives waiting for the market to rebound. The demand for our resort market never diminished, it was just put on hold during the economic downturn. Most believe the worst is behind us and they’re tired of waiting!”
Looking for the perfect weekend getaway or retirement cottage doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Tips from the experts make the search easier.
June Slusser suggested that potential buyers plan a trip and experience everything the area has to offer. “Once you have an opportunity to explore and enjoy the north Georgia mountains, be ready to look for specific areas and home styles that interest you.”
She added that while the Internet is a wonderful place to start, it doesn’t replace the experience and knowledge of a local real estate professional.
Nathan Fitts advised buyers to decide what amenities, like a golf course or lake access, are important, and then work with their realtors to find the right area to fit the lifestyle they want.
“In Blue Ridge, many of the homes are secondary homes, while in Blairsville, many are primary residences,” he said. “Some neighborhoods are all about socializing – visiting and cookouts – while others tend to be more solitary.”
Gary Kaupman noted that every buyer is very different from every other one, but offered four points that should apply to most people considering buying a home in the north Georgia mountains.
1. Be realistic about what you can comfortably afford. Putting less than 20 percent down on a second home is certainly possible, but don’t assume that you can do so without paying for the privilege one way or another.
2. Be realistic about what you can get for what you can afford. That perfect house that was just listed at $350,000, and has comparable sale prices to support the price, cannot be bought for $250,000. On average, homes here sell for about 16 percent less than the original listing price – but that’s an average. About one-quarter of our sales are for 95 percent or more, and eight percent sell for asking price or higher.
3. The median days on market for a home in the north Georgia mountains is just shy of four months, so it’s important to decide how serious you are about buying in the next three to four months. If the answer is “very much,” then I recommend a completely different approach than if you see mountain home hunting as weekend entertainment. And yet another if you’re waiting for Great Aunt Bessie to pass and leave you a bundle before you buy.
4. Be as flexible as you can about your requirements, especially when it comes to looking. For example:
Do you really need three bedrooms and three bathrooms? If you’ll use the third bedroom on every visit, then obviously the answer is “Yes.” But if you’ll only use it twice a year, then we may be able to find a great home for less money.
How important are granite countertops and/or stainless appliances? You can easily add those later, and if we only look at cabins that already have them, we may never see an otherwise perfect home.
Only looking at foreclosures and/or short sales because you’re sure they’re the best deals, or refusing to look at them because you’ve heard they’re a hassle, is not a sound strategy. Every buyer, home and transaction is unique.