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Showings, sales continue for Charleston's high-end home market during pandemic

23 Legare large image

The home at 23 Legare St. on the Charleston peninsula sold in the fall for $8.625 million. Carriage Properties handled the transaction for the buyer and seller. Ellis Creek Photography/Provided

Earlier this month a posh penthouse atop the Peoples Building in downtown Charleston fetched $12 million, the highest-price ever paid for a residential property on the peninsula.

In the fall, a 7,352-square-foot antebellum mansion at 23 Legare St. sold for $8.625 million, which held the previous highest record for a peninsular home transaction.

Lots of other upscale residences at prices of $500,000 or more have changed hands, as well, over the past few months.

Those occurred before the coronavirus pandemic upended the nation's economy and daily life, but sales haven't stopped.

"People are still showing houses," said Owen Tyler, president of the South Carolina Realtors Association and a partner and managing broker-in-charge of the Charleston real estate firm The Cassina Group. "All of the chatter all over the state is that everyone is having showings and multiple offers." 

His comments were made before the city of Charleston adopted a stay-at-home order that took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Later in the day, the city classified real estate as an essential service during the crisis so agents could keep working.

"This crucial decision will allow real estate to keep transacting and supporting our local economy," said Bobette Fisher, president of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. "It allows Realtors to safely assist their clients in obtaining shelter during a time when shelter has never been more important."

Many of the showings are online, but for those that are in person, they only involve an agent and clients (usually one or two people at most) who exercise social distancing while real estate firms sanitize homes before and after visits.

"When we meet clients at a property, we try to distance ourselves from one another," said Chuck Sullivan with Carriage Properties. "All of the doors are open so you don't have to touch anything."

And he's still selling homes.

"I have five or six closings happening over the next 30 days," he said. "I have three closings this week of $750,000-plus. We are doing it remotely."

18 Broad St from outside

The penthouse at 18 Broad St. in Charleston recently sold for $12 million. The Cassina Group handled the sale for the seller, while Oyster Point Real Estate Group handled the sale for the buyer. KeenEye Marketing/Provided

In South Carolina, virtual closings are not allowed, Tyler said. A lawyer has to be present, but the buyer and seller do not.

Handsome Properties is also still active in the market and, like other firms, is taking the proper precautions before, during and after property visits.

"Fortunately, our agents are still showing properties, negotiating contracts and successfully closing properties," said Debbie Fisher, owner and broker-in-charge of the downtown Charleston firm.

During the crisis, the firm is updating its website to make property photos more easily accessible since many people look at homes online before visiting a house on the market.

"We ... are encouraged to find that people are eager to learn more about Charleston and specific properties," Fisher said.

In general, high-end properties usually take longer to sell because of the limited pool of well-heeled buyers, and the process could take a little longer because of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, Tyler believes top-tier housing sales will continue to do well.

"For the upscale market, Charleston is a destination and the higher-end market will continue, but market times may get elongated because people can't travel right now," Tyler said.

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He believes the current crisis will slow showings for all properties across the board, but he does not anticipate any significant price increases or drastic price cuts.

"Banks are still loaning money," he said.

The cost to borrow money continues to be historically low, and mortgage rates will entice buyers to continue looking.

For many on the upper end of the housing market, battered stocks may not come into play.

"Will the downturn in the stock market be enough to affect buying a second or third home?" Tyler said. "I don't think it will be. A lot of those are cash purchases, and a lot of people on the upper end have a lot of cash because the economy has been so strong for so long and they have been selling other real estate."

He also said people continue to look to Charleston for a primary residence, as well, and many of the well-off buyers come from markets with higher-priced homes.

"They can buy something here after selling their home elsewhere and come out ahead," he said.

Travel restrictions to islands near Charleston could have some affect on the housing market.

"It will slow the ability to get a buyer out to see a property," Tyler said.

18 Broad corner view

The penthouse at 18 Broad St. in downtown Charleston offers panoramic views. The property recently sold for $12 million. KeenEye Marketing/Provided

At upscale residential real estate firm William Means of Charleston, Helen Geer said sales have been "very good, even if all of this wasn't happening," a reference to the virus.

Just this month, her firm handled a sale for more than $1 million on the peninsula and another for over $800,000 in West Ashley. Another client she is working with is looking at a property downtown in the range of $4 million to $5 million.

And an American couple living in Australia was expected to move to the area after signing a contract on a $1 million property on Wadmalaw Island.

"We have been brisk this year," Geer said.

She also reiterated a remark by Tyler about the well-to-do buyer.

"So many of our clients aren't affected as directly by the stock market," Geer said.

Looking ahead, the duration of the disease is foremost on everyone's mind, including Geer's.

"I think the upper-end market will have a few bumps, but at the end of the day, it will all be fine," she said.

She's optimistic about the future of the real estate market as long as citizens and local, state and federal governments stay on top of everything.

"For now, everybody is just waiting and seeing what's going to happen with the coronavirus," she said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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