Summer Highs: Cool mountain residences, horse farms, cabins a few hours away in Carolinas and Georgia

A country road cutting through the mountains near Highlands, N.C., recalls the charm of western North Carolina as a spring or summer vacation spot (Photo provided).

By JIM PARKER The Post and Courier

Peaks and valleys of the Smokies and Blue Ridge lure many thousands of visitors every summer, just as surely as landing trout in a spring-fed stream.

Some of those vacationers from Charleston to Florida, even New York and California, go on to buy land or second homes.

Clearly, they’re magnetized and mesmerized by the blue skies, stunning views, moderate temperatures, lush greenery, 6,000-foot climbs, equestrian riding rings, babbling brooks and boater-friendly lakes.

But a goodly share of guests, regulars and part-time residents carve out summertime — or any season for that matter — simply to get away, if not from it all than most everything.

“A lot of families travel here to escape the city (and) leave town,” says Abbie Hanchey, marketing director of the 4,000 acre Leatherwood Mountains resort in Ferguson, N.C., near Boone and Blowing Rock.

Horseback riding is a big activity: The property has 30 horses that people can ride and a 70-horse stables for visitors to bring their steeds. A popular practice of late are women friends getting together, and away from their husbands, for horse-riding weekends or weeks.

“We are completely unplugged here; we can’t promise your cell phone works. It’s a captive audience,” she says.

From Highlands to Hendersonville, vacationers and buyers are looking for places that fit their lifestyles. Owners, Realtors, developers and property managers are more than happy to oblige.

Vacation rentals can run from $75 a night to monthly rates in the five figures. Houses with mountain views sell from the $200,000s to the $800,000s and up. Land costs fluctuate from $100,000 or more a lot to less than one-tenth that price.

Cornelius, N.C.-based Evergreen South LLC specializes in “event style selling,” including with distressed properties, owner Chuck Payne says.

“First come, first served,” he says of an open sale May 19 at the failed Spring Mountain development above Nantahala Gorge. Prices, he says, are “crazy deep.”

He is selling about 30 lots, from one to six-and-a-half acres that are priced at $35,000 or less. “Fourteen lots are under $17,000.” When the project was still active, lots were marketed at $100,000 to $200,000.

“I do say, for a real investor picking up property they enjoy, this is the absolute (best) time. There’s so much upside,” Payne says.

Although large sales and auctions occur fairly regularly on mountain properties, real estate brokers in western North Carolina and in neighboring states contend they were largely insulated from the housing downturn.

But agents agree that sales slowed and prices dropped in the past few years and they’re experiencing an upturn now as the market recovers.

“You know, I had three closings in April,” says Lillie Brown, broker with Town & Country Realtors in Tryon, N.C. “One was $635,000, they paid the asking price.” Another house sold for $495,000 to an Indonesian executive for ConocoPhillips oil company and his family.

Brown specializes in horse farm properties in the Tryon and Saluda, N.C., area and in neighboring Landrum, S.C.

“Our area is a very cultured area,” she says. Prospective buyers interested in riding and in horse farms are primarily from Florida, the Northeast and California. “The Northeast depends on the weather. Florida depends on the number of hurricanes,” she says.

Brown has sold homes to people from Charleston and Johns Island, too. “It’s a great place for a second summer home.”

In some cases, Lowcountry residents are the mountain homeowners and derive income from renting out their properties.

That’s the case with Peter and Annie Steele of James Island, who lease their high altitude condo on top of Sugar Mountain near Banner Elk, N.C.

The couple bought the property a year ago. They lease the condo year-round via VRBO.com (vacation rental by owner). The listing can be viewed at www.VRBO.com/88949.

Renters come from the Carolinas but also Alabama, Mississippi and New York among other places. Summer tenants, she says, typically stay a longer length of time, up to a month or so.

“I was very pleased how it has worked,” she says.

Hanchey, of Leatherwood Mountains, notes an uptick in the resort’s side business of supplying lumber for buyers to construct log houses.

“Actually, we are breaking ground on the first two log homes in, gosh, four years, since anyone was building anything,” she says.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.