Phillip Britt can barely keep up with anyone who wants to move to Robeson County.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, buyers had many options, with around 400 homes for sale in the county at any given time, according to Britt, a real estate agent. In recent months, the number has been more like 60 or 65, he said.
Yes, the real estate boom is indeed in full swing in rural Southeastern North Carolina, which has not seen significant growth in decades.
“We weren’t seeing it spreading to small areas as much,” Britt said of the demand for housing. “However, we have this time.”
Much of North Carolina is seeing an influx of people, including those who have chosen to leave overcrowded and expensive cities like New York and San Francisco during the pandemic. While the housing market is very hot in the state’s largest metropolitan areas, including Charlotte and Raleigh, more potential buyers are also considering areas better known for cornfields and hog farms than residential developments. .
Today, as low interest rates continue to stimulate demand, economic development officials in the North Carolina counties along the South Carolina border are asking an increasingly pressing question: how can they build more houses?
“We are begging estate agents to find a builder to start building specific houses,” said Mark Ward, director of economic development for the county of Scotland, which is home to around 36,000 people and about 45 miles southwest of Fayetteville.
(Unlike custom homes, where buyers make most of the design decisions up front, special homes are built using pre-designed plans and typically sell for a lower price.)
According to Ward and Chuck Heustess, executive director of Bladen’s nonprofit Bloomin ‘Agri-Industrial in Bladen County, one way to attract specific home builders could be through public / private partnerships.
In more populated areas, roads and water and sewer lines may already be in place when developers and builders arrive. But this is often not the case in rural communities, which involves additional expense.
So maybe the counties could use taxpayer dollars to foot the infrastructure bill, Heustess said.
âIf you can lower those costs for developers where it’s more economically feasible for them and less risky for them, maybe we can get some of that housing in our area,â Heustess said.
In Scotland, the county may be able to buy the land for new homes, in addition to piped water and sewer lines, Ward said. The investment would be worth it, as the new homes would increase the tax base.
But Shaun Gardner, owner of Precision Custom Homes in Fayetteville, said it could take more than financial incentives.
Gardner’s company is building homes in Deercroft, a gated community of golf courses in the Scottish town of Wagram. They sell for up to $ 320,000, he said, and he plans to build about 10 a year.
With the high cost of lumber and other building materials, Gardner said it made more financial sense to build larger homes, like those at Deercroft that are up to 2,600 square feet.
âIt’s really hard to build smaller houses right now,â he said. “It’s almost impossible.”
But more importantly, builders need to be convinced that there is sufficient demand for specific homes, Gardner said.
âIf someone is willing to take the risk, it could happen,â he said of reasonably priced real estate developments in Southeast North Carolina. “Someone is going to have to be the first to move.”
While conditions could be ideal for an explosion in growth, the populations of four counties in southeastern North Carolina – Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland – are expected to decline over the next decade, according to projections by the NC Office of State Budget and Management. .
Columbus County, now home to around 56,000 people, is expected to experience the biggest decline and could lose nearly 5% of its population.
Even so, a company has big housing projects for the area. But neighbors are not happy – a stark reminder that barriers to growth, even in rural communities, often come from within.
Wilmington-based Thriving LLC wants to install 48 double-width mobile homes on approximately 44 acres near Whiteville.
While some say the development would provide desperately needed housing, neighboring residents say they are concerned about traffic and the potential impacts on schools and water quality.
âWe have tractors and combines moving up and down the road at all times,â Patricia Wright told Columbus County Commissioners earlier this month, according to The News Reporter. âThis is not a good choice for our farming community.
Jackie Ray-Pierce, owner of J. Ray Realty in Whiteville, said she hoped county officials would accept the developers’ build offers. The local real estate market has not been so busy since the real estate bubble of the early 2000s, she said.
Some people are moving to the area from the northern states, drawn by the warmer weather and proximity to the beach, Ray-Pierce said. Others who live on the coast travel about 50 miles inland to avoid homeowners association fees and ownership restrictions.
The problem is, “there’s really nothing here to move to,” she said.
Demand is so intense that some homes are selling for $ 30,000 above asking price – a phenomenon that occurs in cities and suburbs, but unheard of in this part of the state.
The county has not seen any new subdivisions in years and rental options are equally scarce. Columbus County needs more apartments, said Ray-Pierce.
âIt’s just not doable for, say, a new teacher moving in,â she said.
The surrounding counties also do not have enough rental options. The problem worsened in Robeson County when Hurricanes Matthew and Florence ravaged the area, destroying some homes and leaving others in need of major repairs, according to Britt, of Britt & Co. Real Estate Professionals.
Displaced from their homes, many people have turned to rental.
âThis demand went crazy overnight, basically,â Britt said.
A few years ago, homes in Robeson County, home to Lumberton, typically sold for around $ 99,000, according to Britt. Now they sell for around $ 125,000.
Despite the higher prices, even first-time home buyers want to enter the market. Some are using their tax refunds and federal stimulus payments when interest rates are historically low, Britt said.
But the competition is stiff with so few homes for sale.
âWhen buyers lose 10 homes, it’s human nature to be frustrated,â he said. âSo the need is there. “
Heustess said he hopes to present some ideas in the coming months to Bladen County leaders on possible ways to create more housing. He is pushing for a new approach, using public money to attract private developers.
In the past, the area has seen more mobile home parks, Heustess said. But tighter infrastructure rules have slowed this kind of growth.
And that might not be a bad thing, he said.
âYou really can’t allow people to just throw trailers on farmland and invite people to live there,â Heustess said.