They want a low-maintenance home, a tolerable commute, and a space outside to call their own. But homeowners who are new to the Charleston market are also after something else — a piece of that coveted Lowcountry lifestyle, even if it’s not in their own backyard.
“We are a lifestyle city, for sure,” said Jennifer Maher, broker-in-charge at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage locations in Mount Pleasant and at 35 Broad St. downtown. “What people want and need is more than about bedrooms and bathrooms. A lot of it is about recreation. We ask those questions of folks: ‘Do you kayak, do you boat, do you run, do you have dogs?’ They definitely want the Charleston lifestyle. They may not have it in their backyard, but they want access to it.”
Evident to longtime locals in traffic and new housing tracts, the growth of the Charleston region has been explosive — increased by 45 people per day, according to the Metro Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Economic Forecast, and growing at three times the national average. Many of those transplants bring with them an ideal of Lowcountry living, burnished by alluring internet photos and television footage of beaches, marshes, steeples and the Ravenel Bridge.
But immediate proximity to such things, they quickly learn, comes with a price. Maher said transplants to the Charleston area, especially those from the North, see the area’s lower taxes and gas prices and expect home costs to fall in line — and are surprised when they don’t. Charleston’s median home price of $238,000 ranks 29th nationally, according to Kiplinger’s, ahead of those in more populated cities like Minneapolis, Nashville and Chicago.
“That’s where the realities of affordability and price point come into play. At the same time, there’s lots of different opportunities out there. There are new developments in Hanahan that allow people to have a marsh view at a really affordable price compared to in Mount Pleasant,” said Michael Scarafile, president of Charleston-based Carolina One Real Estate.
“I think most of what we see people, saying is, ‘Wow, I can drive to the beach in 25 minutes.’ Unless you’re talking about executives, I don’t think most of them come in expecting to live on the marsh or have the big oak tree in their front yard. At the same time, they're definitely attracted to the lifestyle.”
When it comes to the homes themselves, Maher said newcomers from skilled laborers to executives often look for many of the same things, whether they’re searching in Summerville or Mount Pleasant. A favorable commute, location near preferred schools, and proximity to medical care are paramount, she said. An outdoor space like a porch is preferred to take advantage of the area’s temperate climate. And they want an energy-efficient home that doesn’t need a lot of work, which often leads them to newer neighborhoods.
“I think folks that are relocating tend to look for things like new construction or very, very well-done remodels,” Maher said. “Not just a kitchen and a bathroom, but an entire home because they don’t know contractors. They don’t know people here, and they don’t want to have to deal with a lot of maintenance or remodeling themselves in a community where they don’t have those resources.”
The Charleston area continues to be transformed by the arrival of manufacturing giants like Boeing, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, which helped the region rank 20th on the Brookings Institution's most recent list of top metros for growth in STEM-related industries. Maher, whose firm is active in corporate relocation, said she sees people moving to the area for job-related reasons daily.
That can occasionally give sellers an incorrect impression. “It’s amazing how many sellers will say, ‘Can’t you just sell this house to an executive from Boeing?’ An executive from Boeing is going to be treated like anybody else,” Scarafile said. “They’re not dumb. They’re not going to overpay just because they’re moving in from out of town.”
And most of those work-related transplants aren’t executives at all, Scarafile added, but people taking manufacturing jobs. “You’re talking more first-time or move-up homebuyers versus giant, million-dollar Daniel Island homes,” he said. And that influx of new residents looking for newer, often first-time homes puts more of a strain on a market that was already lagging behind in both areas.
“Whether you’re in town or moving into town, first-time homebuyer products are hard to find at reasonable price points,” Scarafile added. “Demand still outstrips supply when you talk about homes under $250,000, especially in areas where a lot of these jobs are being created.”
Some of that might be mitigated by the location of the Volvo plant, which is in a sparsely-developed area of Berkeley County off Interstate 26 that Scarafile believes could one day feature nearby affordable housing to meet the demands of those who work there. “On each side of Volvo,” he added, “you’re talking (the potential for) 20 miles of new ecosystem.”
For the time being, though, many homeowners new to the Charleston market battle the affordability crunch just like everyone else. Transplants can also face other surprises like termite bonds and flood insurance policies, which they may not have had to deal with before. It can take a lot to find that little slice of the Lowcountry lifestyle — but as the natives will attest, it’s worth it.
“People move here for the right reason, even when they’re moving here for a job choice,” Maher said. “The fact that Charleston is at the top of their list is because of the Charleston lifestyle.”