Augusta County – views, the arts, and a strong economy

Augusta County – views, the arts, and a strong economy

Augusta County lies west of Charlottesville on the other side of Afton Mountain.  It is known for its spectacular scenery and panoramic mountain views and for its slower paced lifestyle that includes many of the conveniences of city life, along with an arts scene that features music of all varieties, and both professional and community theater.

Augusta is the second largest county in Virginia and has a rich history that began with the arrival of colonists in the early 1700s . It was separated from Orange County in 1738 and the boundaries it enjoys today were finalized in 1790.

Today Augusta sits at the crossroads of Interstates 64 and 81 with easy access to Charlottesville and UVA, Richmond, Harrisonburg, Winchester,  DC and beyond.  The location is one of many reasons major employers locate to this area, resulting in an unemployment rate that is consistently lower than the state as a whole.

This combination of lifestyle, convenience, jobs and natural beauty also attracts a broad spectrum of home buyers. Some locate in Augusta for employment; others because it is a popular place to retire; and still others are pleased with the values available in housing and choose to settle there and commute elsewhere for work.  The area’s popularity is reflected in a local real estate market that agents report was strong last year, a trend that continues into 2015.

The Augusta Lifestyle

“Augusta County is a diverse and welcoming place,” said Allen Persinger with the Staunton office of RE/Max Advantage.  He tells new home owners that when they move in they can be part of a friendly community, but if more privacy is their choice, no one will bother them.  In other words, everyone can feel at home there.

Minnie Stevenson, with KlineMay Realty, described Augusta County as large enough for important amenities, yet small enough to have a low crime rate and be community oriented.  She has lived in the area for 40 years and says “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.  The peaceful quality of life is hard to beat.”

Part of what makes for an exceptional quality of life is all of the cultural activities.  The local arts community is a big draw, explained Ed Davis with Real Estate Plus. While not native to Augusta, Davis located there from Richmond 30 years ago.  “Now I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” he said.

“Augusta has something for everyone,” Davis continued.  If you like music you will find everything from classical to bluegrass.  He is particularly proud of the Heifetz International Music Institute, a world-class, six-week summer program for promising young string players between the ages of 14 and 25, which is held on the Mary Baldwin campus.

For a more casual music experience, many residents also enjoy a free summer concert series in Gypsy Hill Park, also in Staunton.  This popular program features, on different nights, band concerts with the Stonewall Brigade Band (a group organized in 1855 and still going strong), Gospel Music, Blue Grass and Jazz.

Great theatre is also available in Augusta, the most famous being the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, which is the one and only re-creation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater. “It is absolutely different,” Davis said and “really brings Shakespeare to life.”  The players often incorporate music which is, they believe, what Shakespeare intended, he explained.  However the music can be from the same time period as the play or they may surprise the audience with a contemporary pop tune.  “The music makes it so much fun,” Davis said.

Augusta’s History

Augusta County was formed in 1738 and a courthouse built at Staunton, the county seat, in 1745. Initially many goods traveled west to east by waterways, but by 1854 railroads connected Staunton with the state capitol, Richmond.  The same railroads also made Staunton a good choice for a supply center for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.  Eventually though, it was occupied and much of it destroyed by fire set by Union soldiers.  Trinity Episcopal Church is one of several Civil War era landmarks that can be viewed by today’s visitors to Staunton’s historic district.

Many Augusta residents and their visitors also enjoy the Frontier Culture Museum, which highlights the life of some of the earliest colonists who came primarily from England, Germany, Ireland and Africa.  Special exhibits show the contrast between the colonists’ lives in their respective homelands and their experience living in the Shenandoah Valley.

Augusta is also known for being the home of famous people.  These include Cyrus McCormick, who helped revolutionize farming when he invented the reaper at his home in Steele’s Tavern, and Woodrow Wilson, our nation’s 28th President, who was born in Staunton.  Today Staunton serves as the location of Wilson’s Presidential Library and Museum.

Augusta’s Real Estate Market

Agents are very upbeat when discussing the current real estate market in Augusta.

Home prices are a real plus for this area’s market.  “You can get a lot more house for the money in Augusta,” Persinger said.  He added that while January is usually a slow month in the real estate business, this year has started strong with lots of activity and showings.

The favorable prices make August a good place for first timers to shop.  “There is always a market for them.” Persinger said.  He even described a few homes that are on the market for less than $100,000.  “They many need a spruce up,” he said, but added that with these kinds of prices a handy first timer has a real opportunity to pick up a good deal.

Stevenson agreed with this assessment of the local market.  She said that overall the market was up 3 to 4 percent last year compared to 2013.  “It’s definitely a comeback,” she said stating that she is extremely busy for this time of the year.

“So many sellers are wanting to sell now,” Stevenson.  The result is lots more inventory, a real plus for buyers.  “The fence sitters are finally getting off the fence,” she added.  She has listed several homes since the first of January which she says reflects greater confidence on the part of sellers who are happy there are “no more drastic price drops.”  Another good sign, Stevenson explained, is that homes in the over $350,000 range are starting to move.

“We are seeing a definite positive trend in home sales,” said Leah Thomas, Director of Marketing for Countryside HomeCrafters.  “Buyers from all demographics are finding new homes with us, even ones that thought they couldn’t buy a home.”  Countryside offers new homes and town homes starting at $170,000.  Since they offer in-house financing, they are able to work with buyers that would not be able to get a mortgage elsewhere.  “…if you’ve had a bankruptcy or have marginal credit we can still sell you a home,” she said.  “A lot of self employed people are able to buy from us as well.”

Davis described the January 2015 market as “phenomenal,” stating that he feels “upbeat” about the year ahead.  He listed pent up demand, continuing low interest rates and favorable home prices as all contributing to the current upsurge in activity.

It is not unusual for people who have jobs in Charlottesville to take advantage of Augusta’s favorable home prices, settle there and commute to work. The Interstate is fast and convenient and Route 250 is a good alternative when needed.  Occasionally people express concern about the hazards of fog on Afton Mountain, but this usually is only a problem for about 30 days during a typical year.

Beauty and Convenience

When the agents were asked what makes Augusta special, the scenery and especially the mountain views were always high on the list.

Davis described his own decision to move to the area.  He and his wife thought about moving to the shore but realized that in such a community you can only admire the water by looking in one direction, and unless you live right on the beach you don’t get a view. On the other hand, the mountains are panoramic and you can enjoy them from anywhere in the area and see them from all directions.

The self-contained nature of Augusta is also a plus for many people.  Shopping is available in national stores such as Target, Lowes, Home Depot and Kohl’s. Waynesboro and Staunton also have movie theaters, as well as great restaurants to choose from.

Thomas described “lots of shopping and restaurants,”  noting that Charlottesville is only thirty minutes away for those who want even more options to choose from.

Outdoorsy people love Augusta County where they can enjoy everything from golfing, walking or hiking to canoeing or camping.  And if you love hunting and fishing, Waynesboro is the place. In 2010 Outdoor Life magazine ranked it as the top town in Virginia for both of these activities.

Where Buyers Come From

Buyers come to Augusta from all over, Stevenson explained.  “Lots of retirees stop here when traveling elsewhere.  They come back for a few days and see what the area has to offer and end up moving here.”

Davis is active in the local Rotary and meets people from all over who have decided to retire in Staunton.   He has worked with people who have relocated here from places as diverse as Florida, Minnesota and California.  It might seem surprising that people, especially retirees, would move to Augusta from Florida. However Davis explained that often they settle there and realize they miss having four seasons so come back north a ways to Augusta. “They see it as a mid-point as far as climate goes,” he said.

It’s not just retirees who relocate to this area.  Recently Davis worked with a couple who originally lived in a community east of Richmond.  They decided to sell their home in order to travel the country for five years in a 28-foot camper, stopping in places they liked and in some instances, when money was short, taking a temporary job.  Although they had no prior connection to Staunton, they chose it from all of the many options as a place to settle down.

Thomas agreed that people move to Augusta from many different places.  In some instances the buyers are local; often the case for first timers and those looking to downsize.  “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.

The popularity of Augusta comes from a combination of factors.  Its natural beauty, cultural attributes and strong economy attract people of all ages.  When they arrive, these newcomers find a friendly welcoming place with lots of activities and ways to meet people and make new friends.  Ultimately, though, Davis explained that what people really enjoy about living in Augusta is that it feels like home.

Celeste Smucker is a writer, blogger and author who lives near Charlottesville.

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