May 08: Over the mountain, into the fold

Dear reader, close your eyes with me, if you will, and think back to a lost time, an era gone, the enchanted world of local real estate circa 2004 and 2005. Do you remember that distant past, when homes sold in days, mortgages were written with the effortless sweep of an ink pen and the buyers were buying what the sellers were selling? Seems like a different lifetime, huh?

In those heady, mad days of snapping up all the home that your (then) powerful dollar could buy, a little secret was brewing just across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before the real estate markets in Charlottesville and Albemarle County dried up, before the average number of days a house for sale stayed on the market jumped from 43 in 2005 to 114 in 2008, a few brave souls were making their way over Afton Mountain to a place that boasted a bounty of affordable housing. And Realtors followed them.

Staunton might be a mountain climb away, but more people these days are willing to make the daily trek.

Now, in the cold harsh light of the real estate downturn of 2008, there is a place where affordable housing exists, seemingly buffered from the high prices of Charlottesville and its urban ring by the Blue Ridge. It comes at a price, though, usually a 30-minute trip into town. But to some, it is worth the daily journey. Affordable housing seekers, allow me to introduce the Central Valley, the Staunton/Waynesboro real estate market.

As if to acknowledge that the reach of the Charlottesville real estate market has finally moved over the mountains, the 2008 First Quarter report from the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors (CAAR) has for the first time included data from the Central Valley. That brings it into the mix that includes not only Charlottesville, but Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties as well.

“Geographically, our natural market area has changed and grown well outside the normal parameters,” says Dave Phillips, CEO of CAAR. “We thought it was time to go ahead and start analyzing that from our market report standpoint.”

Even though the markets remain stagnant in Charlottesville and Albemarle, the median price of homes rose from this time last year. If you’re looking for a home priced under $200,000 (and a market starving for first-time buyers hopes you are), your options grow more plentiful the farther you get from Charlottesville. According to MLS data, the two localities with the most houses under $200,000 are Fluvanna and Waynesboro.

As for homes built since 2000 that are under $200,000, “the only places you’re going to find those are in Waynesboro and Louisa,” says Phillips. He compares a 50-year-old house in Albemarle to a 15-year-old house in Greene. “Or,” he says, “I can take you over the mountains, and I can get you one that’s 3 or 4 years old.”

But about those mountains….In the search for affordable housing around these parts, there are tradeoffs. And one is a daily trip over those mountains. The Great Valley may hold a dream house that fits into your budget, but ask yourself this: How do I feel about a daily commute that spans two watersheds? Can I afford a hybrid car with the money saved on the down payment? Do I have enough books on CD for this commute, preferably epics written by authors with Russian-sounding names?

Because you’re going to spend a lot of time in your car.

But then again, Waynesboro is only 15 minutes from Crozet. The commute isn’t 40 years in a desert. But those mountains! What Phillips calls “that hill” can serve to separate Charlottesville from Waynesboro in more ways than just the physical distance.

“That hill was always a huge psychological barrier,” he says. “But for whatever reason that barrier is now gone, and folks are willing to travel over there.”

Yes, the promise of affordable housing can certainly make people do funny things.

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