By Celeste M. Smucker –
If the idea of walking to work, eating at close-in trendy restaurants, browsing an interesting array of shops and heading out to entertainment venues near where you live appeals to you, then ask your agent about downtown Charlottesville.
The lively pedestrian mall is the heart of downtown and an area that also draws employers who love living in Charlottesville and recognize the value of locating where their employees can peruse boutiques during lunch, meet friends for a drink at day’s end or easily pick up their favorite coffee concoctions and snacks as they walk or bike their way to work in the morning.
Individuals and families who live near downtown enjoy a contemporary lifestyle in a walkable, urban setting that offers a range of prices plus housing styles that include condos, cottages, and historic homes. Downtown is truly a place that has something for everyone, and its popularity is reflected in an active real estate market that is keeping agents very busy.
The Downtown Real Estate Market
There is no question that the downtown market is doing well, although it is limited by a lack of inventory.
The market is “ridiculously busy,” said Rob Alley with RE/MAX Realty Specialists describing it as the best it’s been in the last ten years. “If a home is remotely priced well, it will sell,” he said.
The market is “strong,” reported Inessa Telefus with Loring Woodriff Real Estate Associates who joined her fellow agents in lamenting the lack of inventory, although this situation definitely helps sellers. She described an open house where 40 buyers came through in a short period of time producing a quick sale with multiple offers and a sold price that was significantly higher than the home’s list price.
The market in the City continues to be “strong and very active,” said Cynthia Viejo with Nest Realty Group who is happy to report that not only are homes moving quickly but even the higher priced ones are selling. She gave as an example downtown area condos with $500,000 to $1 million price tags that are moving. “This is a big change from a couple of years ago,” she added calling the downtown area “the soul of Charlottesville.”
While many downtown homes are older, buyers that want the benefits of new construction also have a few alternatives. For example, Viejo recently sold a detached, new construction home in Belmont in the half million price range.
Downtown is also an area that is profitable for investors, even in north downtown where Viejo has observed buyers (investors and owner occupants) renovating and reselling homes.
Alley explained that investors seek out properties that show evidence of deferred maintenance that are not move-in ready and would not pass muster with a mortgage company’s requirements preventing typical buyers from acquiring them. Once the home is fixed up and updated to meet the lender’s standards a buyer can get a mortgage on it and move in.
He cited a recently renovated two bedroom, one bath home on Druid Avenue that was spruced up and given an open floor plan to make it more contemporary and livable. The investor paid $105,000 and sold it to a happy first time buyer for $245,000 in what Alley called “a win-win for everyone.”
Downtown is also in demand from people who buy and hold properties for rental as easy access to the University and local hospitals makes the area a popular place for medical residents and other young professionals looking for a convenient place to live.
Living the Downtown Lifestyle
If you ask residents and agents why downtown is popular, all of them will state that walkability is the number one reason. In some cases families that live very close-in can even give up one of their cars and choose to walk or bike to work, to shop, or to meet a friend for coffee. Others enjoy using their cars a lot less than they would in other parts of town.
The centerpiece of downtown Charlottesville is the pedestrian mall, the first phase of which was completed in 1976. Today it is recognized as one of just a few such attempts at this model of downtown renewal that has survived. Charlottesville’s mall is longer than most, comprising seven blocks closed to traffic with over 30 restaurants and 120 shops and boutiques of all varieties.
“When you live downtown you can walk to restaurants and entertainment,” Telefus said. Viejo added that the downtown area is a “happening” place where people enjoy meeting up with friends and checking out the shops before they decide which of the many local restaurants is most appealing for lunch.
Another downtown feature that she says adds “vibrancy” to the area is the Charlottesville City Market, open Saturdays from 7 a.m. until noon from April to October and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.in November and December. And of course, just south of downtown is the IX Art Park described on its website as: ” a walk-through, sculptural, mural-festooned Mecca that’s free and open for the public to wander, night and day.”
The Art Park is the venue for a host of activities and joins the Mall as a magnet that draws people to downtown. It is recognized for the events that take place there throughout the year and attracts happy participants who look forward to everything from concerts to festivals—like the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest—plus art shows and civic events. And unlike the Mall area, visitors enjoy free parking while they sample a variety of eating establishments without leaving the property. Ix property manager Erin Hill encourages everyone to come join the festivities stating that “the Art Park is busy every day.”
Walkability is the “key” to most people’s buying decisions, said Bob Hughes with Nest Realty Group. He added that as prices on properties close to the mall continue to climb many buyers will be forced to move further out and predicts that Preston Avenue with its shops, restaurants and what has been called “a downtown vibe” may be the next popular area.
“It’s the convenience,” Alley said, that brings people to downtown neighborhoods where they can shop in boutiques and enjoy walking to restaurants and entertainment venues. However, he suggested that for first timers it is often their employment near downtown or at the University that makes this area an especially attractive place to live.
Home buyers with green values also appreciate downtown neighborhoods. Not only can they drive less and walk more, many enjoy the process of renovating an older home to make it more energy efficient and livable. And if that doesn’t appeal, they can always opt for the energy savings that come with new construction.
“However,” said Charif Soubra with Southern Development Homes, “while sustainability and walkability both add value to a home, walkability trumps it all.”
Families who love a walkable lifestyle are willing to pay higher prices and possibly compromise on amenities to be as close as possible to downtown. They come from out of the area, from out of state, and even from out of the country, but many come from as close as Albemarle County or the Route 29 corridor. These are people looking for an “urban community,” said Robert Ramsey with Roy Wheeler Realty Co.
Ramsey, who grew up in the downtown area, has observed many changes there over the last 60+ years. His family’s home on Park Street was just three houses from the country, predating the bypass or the Downtown Mall. He reflected on some of the people who today call this area home, prominent among them being Boomers who once moved out to Ivy and other outlying areas, but now want to live close in and give up a car.
“Cutting down on drive time saves on gas, mind and soul,” Ramsey said, adding that they also relocate to be free of home and yard maintenance by moving into a condo or perhaps into a home on a small lot requiring much less maintenance.
People from out of the area also gravitate to downtown like some clients of Telefus who recently relocated to Charlottesville from the northeast and rented for awhile before deciding where they wanted to buy. The idea of an older home had a lot of appeal for them, but they found many they looked at were not in good condition and they didn’t want the hassle of renovating. Now they are happily ensconced in their maintenance-free condo loving their downtown, walkable lifestyle.
Downtown neighborhoods draw the “full gamut” of buyers, Viejo said. However she too has worked with her share of clients who are retirees and pre-retirees ready to live closer in and spend less time mowing and weeding. Recently some of her clients sold their million dollar home on 10+ acres and bought a place in town at “the heart of it all.” She sees this trend continuing and looks forward to a strong market in 2018.
Charlottesville’s many cultural activities are very attractive Telefus noted, but added that the City’s spectacular views are not to be overlooked. She has had clients who, after they viewed different homes and locations, chose to buy downtown. They said it was because they wanted the convenience and the walkability, but Telefus added that, it was often the beautiful views that finally clinched the sale.
For many home buyers, part of the allure of living downtown is Charlottesville’s long history and the multitude of historic buildings within a few blocks of each other. Telefus cited “historic charm” as a significant element of downtown living that is important to many buyers.
The original City dates back to 1762 when the Virginia General Assembly set aside 50 acres of land around the Albemarle County Courthouse and named it in honor of Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III of England. The site was laid out in half acre lots on four east-west and five north-south streets that today form the heart of downtown.
In 1982, Charlottesville’s entire Historic District—88 structures—was added to the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of properties considered worthy of preservation and administered by the National Park Service. The City also recognizes these properties and requires their owners to seek approval from a Board of Architectural Review before changing their exteriors.
This carefully preserved part of Charlottesville’s history gives local residents a continuing connection to the past, at the same time that many of them are part of a growing tech sector that is moving our city firmly into the future.
If you want to live close in and walk to the Mall and the IX Building with all of their amenities, ask your agent about living downtown and join the vibrant arts and restaurant scene, buy vegetables at the City Market and, most of the time, leave your car at home.
Celeste Smucker is a writer and blogger who lives near Charlottesville.