By Sarah Nagem
Jackie Patterson decided to sell her home in Whiteville so she and her two children could move closer to family. She never dreamed she would list the brick ranch for $219,000.
Home prices have risen sharply in much of southeastern North Carolina, proving the hot real estate market isn’t just affecting the state’s biggest cities. Smaller towns like Whiteville, home to about 5,200 people in Columbus County, are seeing cash offers well above asking price, out-of-state buyers and frustrated first-time homeowners.
The median home sale price in Columbus County rose nearly 82% between April 2019 and March 2022, according to data from Realtor.com. That’s among the biggest increases in a 20-county region in the southeastern part of the state.
Many buyers in Columbus County are looking for homes under $250,000, said Henry Edmund with Waccamaw Real Estate. Far enough from the hustle and bustle of cities, they also want land.
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“This is the kind of property that everyone is looking for,” Edmund said of Patterson’s home and its 1-acre lot with an out-building. He said he received two calls about the property within an hour of putting up a for-sale sign in the front yard last week.
A booming housing market could be a good sign for Columbus and surrounding counties, which saw their populations shrink between 2010 and 2020. But the problem, experts say, is the limited inventory.
While new subdivisions and apartment complexes pop up regularly in counties such as Wake and Mecklenburg, developers have been slow to build in more rural areas that often don’t have easy access to roads and water and sewer lines.
“There’s a housing shortage,” said Gary Lanier, planning director for Columbus County.
Columbus expects to see growth in the southern part of the county from the Myrtle Beach area and in the eastern part of the county from the Brunswick County beaches. Local leaders are considering areas that need infrastructure and are also putting together rules to guide future growth, Lanier said.
“We know that the growth is coming, and we’re getting ready for it,” he said. “We don’t want to have seven or eight developers trying to cram developments into the county before we have something in place.”
Columbus isn’t the only county in short supply of homes. To the north, Bladen County saw the median home sale price increase by 87.15% over a two-year span, according to Realtor.com.
“People are paying higher prices just because the inventory is low,” said Darian Ransom, owner of First Choice Pro Realty in Whiteville.
In southeastern North Carolina, Wayne County saw the biggest rise in homes’ median sale price between April 2019 and March 2022 – an increase of more than 123%, data shows. Cumberland County, home to Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, saw an increase of about 111%.
Scotland County, which had the lowest median sale price in the region two years ago, saw an increase of nearly 85%.
Despite rising prices, the median home sale price in Columbus County – $185,000 in March – was lower than that in most counties in the region.
Some buyers looking in Columbus might be priced out of coastal counties such as Brunswick, where the median sale price was $381,500 last month. New Hanover County, home to Wilmington, wasn’t far behind at $370,000.
Some people who moved to the coast years ago are also turned off by the fast growth in those areas, Edmund said.
“They’re just building and building and building down there,” he said. “It’s almost unprecedented. … I find that people coming here (to Columbus County), they’re looking for more rural settings.”
Near Lake Waccamaw, where home prices tend to be higher than elsewhere in Columbus, some buyers are paying cash, according to Edmund.
Edmund said he has worked on three deals in the past year involving homes that cost more than $500,000, and two of the three buyers paid cash.
Buyers have good reason to try to try to sweeten the deal. Typically, Edmund said, the Lake Waccamaw area has 12 to 15 homes on the market. Last week, he said, there were three.
Recently, he said, a woman from Florida called and offered $20,000 above a home’s list price of $148,000. The deal fell through, but Edmund said it has become more common for potential buyers to go above the asking price.
Edmund said one of his out-of-state clients recently lost $7,500 in due diligence – a good-faith fee paid by buyers – when he put an offer on a home before his spouse visited.
“Two days later when the wife came, she said, ‘I don’t like it,’” Edmund said. “Ching ching, $7,500 gone.”
There is much talk about people moving from the Northeast to places like Columbus County. But buyers are coming in from across the country.
“It’s crazy, but it’s all over the map,” Ransom said, explaining that he has helped clients from Colorado, California, Nebraska and New York – and families who already live in Columbus County.
'Now or never'
With so few homes available, Columbus County leaders are counting on new houses being built. While infrastructure is one barrier, there are others – including existing residents who don’t want more traffic in their neighborhoods and more stress on the water system.
Last June, the Columbus County Board of Commissioners rejected Antioch Farms, a planned 48-home development south of Whiteville. The vote came after several residents complained about the project, saying it didn’t fit in with their rural community.
Lanier, the planning director for Columbus, said the county needs a planned unit development ordinance that would set rules and guidelines for developers. Such ordinances can dictate everything from new sidewalks to recreation space.
Unlike many counties, Columbus does not have county-wide zoning to guide locations for industrial or residential developments.
“We don’t have that, because we’re a very rural county,” Lanier said. “But the growth is spilling over from Brunswick, Horry counties. The growth is coming, and we need to get ready for it.”
While the county prepares, there are signs the housing market could start to level out. The Federal Reserve is increasing interest rates for the first time since 2018 in an effort to slow inflation.
Inflated home prices paired with higher interest rates will keep some people from buying homes, Ransom said.
He said one client backed out of a home contract due to fears of rising prices, on everything from groceries to gasoline.
“They were concerned, with inflation, would they be able to maintain that home,” he said. “You can’t live your life stressed out about money all the time.”
Ransom, who also teaches mathematics at Southeastern Community College, said he thinks home prices will come down when the price of lumber comes down.
Time will tell what that could mean for housing in Columbus County. For now, people like Jackie Patterson are reaping the benefits of a sellers’ market.
Patterson, a nurse at Columbus Regional Healthcare System, is in a hurry to move.
“Now or never,” she said.