Augusta is the second largest county in Virginia and is bordered by mountains on both the east and the west. Not surprisingly, it is known for its spectacular and panoramic mountain views. However it also offers many of the conveniences of city life, along with a rich history beginning with the early colonists who started arriving in 1720. The County figured in the Revolutionary War when Staunton served briefly as the state capitol, played a role in the Civil War and continues to be prominent in modern times. Along with many opportunities for outdoor activities, Augusta is also known for its arts scene featuring music of all varieties, and both professional and community theater.
Life in the Shenandoah Valley moves at a bit of a slower pace than on the other side of the Blue Ridge, although it doesn’t lack opportunities for those who want to pursue them. And of course Charlottesville and UVA are just 30 minutes away to the east and Richmond an hour’s drive beyond that. Alternatively you can head north to DC and beyond. The Valley is a genuine crossroads with easy access to the rest of the state.
Home buyers hunting for good deals will find them in Augusta where there is much more house and lot available for the money than can be purchased in Charlottesville or Albemarle. As a result, you will find many first time buyers living in the Valley, along with empty nesters seeking a quieter lifestyle where they can choose from many cultural activities. And like other parts of our region, the real estate market is picking up as people take advantage of favorable prices and continuing low interest rates to buy homes they couldn’t have imagined they could afford just a few years ago.
History and Culture
Once part of Orange County, Augusta became its own entity in 1738. A courthouse was built at the county seat of Staunton in 1745 where records have been kept continuously since then. In 1854 the building of a railroad linking these two major centers enhanced the flow of goods from Staunton to Richmond. The railroad also brought Staunton into the Civil War when it served the Confederate Army as a supply center.
Augusta County is known for being the home of Cyrus McCormick, who brought a revolution to farming when he invented the reaper at his home in Steele’s Tavern. It is also recognized as the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson who was born in Staunton, which today serves as the location of his Presidential Library and Museum.
Another Augusta historical attraction is the Frontier Culture Museum that depicts the life of colonists who came to this country in the 1600s and 1700s. The museum tells the story of four different groups who arrived from England, Germany, Ireland and Africa. Two separate areas depict life in both the homelands of these settlers and in their new homes in the Shenandoah Valley.
While the history of this area is a big draw, another attraction is the local arts community, said Ed Davis with Real Estate Plus. Davis is not native to this area but located here 28 years ago. “Now I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” he said.
The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, the one and only re-creation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater, is one of many reasons for his enthusiasm. “It is almost always sold out,” he said. “If you want to go you need to plan ahead.” There are also a variety of music venues including country, blue grass and classical, plus galleries and outlets for visual arts.
A concert series in Gypsy Hill Park, also in Staunton, is a popular way to enjoy summer evenings and features, on different nights, Band Concerts with the Stonewall Brigade Band, Gospel Music, Blue Grass and Jazz.
Augusta’s Other Amenities
The scenery, and especially the mountain views, is among Augusta’s biggest attractions, said Betty Aguilar with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate III. Davis agrees, reflecting that unlike living in a beach community where you can only admire the water by looking in one direction, the mountains are panoramic and you can enjoy them from anywhere in the area and see them in all directions.
Another big plus of living in Augusta is that it is self-contained. All of the shopping is there like Kohl’s, Target, Lowes and Home Depot and there are now theaters in both Staunton and Waynesboro. There are also lots of good restaurants to choose from after enjoying some of Augusta’s many cultural events, Aguilar said.
Leah Thomas, Vice President of Marketing and Sales with Countryside Service Company in Staunton, also described what she called “lots of shopping and restaurants.” In addition, however, she noted that Charlottesville is only a short distance away for those who want even more options to choose from.
For people who like outdoor activities, Augusta County also provides many options for outdoor activities such as golfing, walking, hiking, fishing, hunting, canoeing or camping. In 2010 Outdoor Life magazine ranked Waynesboro as the top town in Virginia for hunting and fishing
Augusta’s Real Estate Market
A big plus for Augusta is the home prices. You will find “lots more house for the money,” Aguilar said, and “taxes are lower here as well.” Buyers looking for a deal can find older homes in the $150,000 range, and fixer uppers are available for even less, she said.
Aguilar moved to the Valley nine years ago. Back then a buyer would pay $100,000 more for a 3 bedroom 1 and 1/2 bath home in Charlottesville compared to Augusta, she explained. Today the difference is less but still substantial at $50,000.
Many people have jobs in Charlottesville and commute from Waynesboro and other Augusta County locations traveling the interstate, which is fast and convenient, or choosing Route 250. Some people express concern about the fog on the mountain, Aguilar said, but she added that there are only 30 days in a typical year where fog is an issue.
There are positive signs in the real estate market in Augusta as there are elsewhere in our region. Davis said that the inventory is less than it was a year ago and there are fewer bank owned homes on the market than there once were.
He also referenced the much lower prices stating that the median for the area is just $151,500, a lot less than in Charlottesville/Albemarle. “It is in the $150,000 to $200,000 price range where most of the action is,” he said. However, he added that the higher end homes are also moving, just more slowly than the others. Days on the market are also less than they were a year ago. These statistics plus the continuing low interest rates are all “positive signs for the coming year,” Davis said.
Thomas described a “surge in our sales,” last year. Her company had 100 new home starts in 2013 resulting in their largest growth in revenue ever and “we are on target to have another great year in 2014,” she said. Her company does building and offers creative financing options, including special programs for people who are self employed or who have less than stellar credit. They also do rent-to-own programs, and even do trades. Last year they did 10 such transactions that involved her company buying a home from a family who then simultaneously purchased one of her company’s new homes.
Augusta is Attractive to Many Different Buyers
With its lower prices, Augusta definitely has a lot to offer first time buyers. “Lots of younger people working in Charlottesville choose Augusta,” Aguilar said. She explained that for many of them their only choice would be a condo if they bought in Charlottesville. When they move to Augusta the commute is still reasonable and they can live in a house with a yard in a community such as Waynesboro or Lyndhurst.
Retirees also like this area. In fact Davis, who is active in the local Rotary, described Augusta as a “Mecca for retirees,” who like the lifestyle and the small town atmosphere available in Staunton and Waynesboro. Many retirees also appreciate what the area has to offer in the way of the arts.
People are moving to Augusta from all over. Many of the first timers are local as are some of those looking to downsize, Thomas said. “We also get our share of people moving from Charlottesville,” she added. Of course, many of them find the larger homes and bigger lots attractive compared to what is available elsewhere.
Lots of people move here from the north, Davis explained. However, he said there are a surprising number who relocate from Florida because they like living in a place that has four seasons. “They see it as a mid-point as far as climate goes,” he said.
Augusta also has much to offer in the way of jobs, Aguilar said. She cited Hershey and Hollister as two of the biggest, but McQuay International, Wal-Mart and Little Debbie are also prominent there as are many others. Of course, this kind of economic activity brings many people to the area.
The job strength of the Augusta economy was recognized in 2011 when Site Selection magazine ranked it in the top 20 “micropolitan areas.” A micropolitan area is a US Census designation that describes urbanized areas around smaller communities such as Staunton and Waynesboro. The rankings are based on job creation and capital investment. According to Virginiabusiness.com just a few of the local businesses which contributed to this impressive ranking included, Ntelos, Innovative Refrigeration Systems and Fisher Auto Parts all of which had enjoyed significant expansions and created many new jobs that year.
All of the agents had positive things to say about the Augusta lifestyle. Aguilar explained that there are a lot of activities and plenty to do, but it is also a lot quieter than in Charlottesville.
In terms of quality of life, Staunton has received a significant amount of recognition in the last several years. In 2012 it was rated number 10 of America’s 20 top small towns by the Smithsonian Magazine, Davis said. The article cites Staunton’s creation of the “city-manager government model,” which made possible the growth of all of its cultural opportunities of which the Blackfriars Playhouse is just one of many.
In addition, this year, Fodder’s Travel Blog selected Staunton’s Beverley Street as one the best main streets in America.
“Many people are not aware that Waynesboro is also experiencing a lot of growth,” Thomas said. The shopping and the new theaters are a big plus, and the market as a whole is doing well she continued.
While all of Augusta’s attributes are important, what people really enjoy about living here, Davis said, is the small town community atmosphere where everyone feels at home.
Celeste Smucker is a writer, blogger and author. She lives near Charlottesville.