Orange county offers a friendly country lifestyle

Orange county offers a friendly country lifestyle

Picture a beautiful rural setting with mountain views. Add some of our area’s finest wineries and some interesting historic sites and the result could very well be Orange County.

Orange got its start in 1734 when settlers made it a legal entity, separating it from what was then Spotsylvania County and naming it for England’s William, Prince of Orange. Two of our Presidents, James Madison and Zachary Taylor, are native to Orange County, and during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E Lee fought each other there for the first time at the Battle of The Wilderness.

Today’s Orange County is still primarily agricultural and known for being one of Virginia’s top grape producers.  However over the years the county has diversified, attracting companies such as defense contractor Aerojet, book publisher MPS, and infant formula distributor, PBM Products.  Earlier this year, the county announced that Green Applications, a textile printing and distribution company would be moving in, bringing 323 new jobs to the area.

Tourism is also an important part of Orange County’s economy, which is home to many quaint shops and great restaurants attractive to residents and visitors alike.  Other high points include a host of local wineries and Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison and the Montpelier Races where both horses and Jack Russell terriers race every first weekend of November.

Orange County is also a great place to own a house or estate, especially if you are someone who likes a slower country lifestyle.  Local agents report that the market is improving, although perhaps not as quickly as in other parts of our area.  The other good news is Orange County is a place where you can still find some great prices on housing and where first time buyers are welcome, along with those looking for more substantial properties like estates or horse farms.

Why Buyers Like Orange County

Jack Samuels with Jack Samuels Realty said that many people who move to Orange do so for the
“peaceful, easy feeling.”  The small town atmosphere is also attractive to those who choose to live in the towns of Orange or Gordonsville where “people all know each other,” he added.

“The county also has beautiful mountain views,” Samuels said, adding that “when people see the rolling hills they realize this is not like city life and they decide they want to stay.”

“Life is a lot easier here,” he continued describing his leisurely drive to work with only one stop light and almost no traffic.

Pat Crabtree with Montague Miller and Co. agrees, comparing the town of Orange where she has her office to Mayberry RFD.  She loves the small town feel and the community gathering places like the park and the farmer’s market on Main Street.  Of course homeowners who appreciate privacy and an even more rural experience have beautiful farmland with fenced pastures and gorgeous mountain views to choose from.

Kyle Olson with Montague Miller and Co. said that Orange County’s location makes it attractive to many people.  For example, it’s a great place for families that have one spouse working in Charlottesville and the other with a job in Spotsylvania.  He also described the charm of living in the town of Orange, which is an  “historic American town with neat architecture and a very nice Main Street area” where residents benefit from a “decent cost of living.”   

“People can enjoy living in a smaller town, but still venture out and enjoy all of the amenities of nearby Charlottesville or Spotsylvania,” Olson continued.  He added that there are also a lot of outdoor opportunities such as walking, water sports and birding for people who like to get out in nature.

Justin Wiley with Frank Hardy, Inc. called Orange County “a great place to live,” describing its natural beauty and the impressive views. A native of Charlottesville/Albemarle, he moved to Orange fourteen years ago.  “It hasn’t changed much in that time,” he said adding that “it still feels like it used to.” He explained that there are quite a few conservation easements in Orange, which means homebuyers can expect those parts of the county to retain their rural character forever.

Another benefit to Orange is that its location north of Charlottesville means it’s easy to get to the main airports, Wiley said.  Plus it is very convenient to shopping and other amenities in town.

Historic Homes and Estates

Buyers looking for historic properties can find them in Orange County.  A good place to look is an area called Somerset where there are estate properties built amidst pastoral rolling hills in an area described as “the jewel of Orange County” and often compared to the English countryside.

Some well known examples of large estates and historic homes include Frascati, built in the early 1800s for Philip Barbour, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.  Another Orange County historic home, named Annandale, served as a hospital during the Civil War.  Today it is a private residence where the owners enjoy a number of careful renovations done to this property over the years including the conversion of the barn into a guest house. Yet another Orange County landmark is Mayhurst, an estate built by James Madison’s great nephew where during the Civil War Confederate troops camped on the lawn.  Today it is a luxurious Bed and Breakfast.

The Real Estate Market

Orange County agents expressed cautious optimism about the residential real estate market there, which is slowly coming back.  The other good news is all the good buys, including opportunities for first time buyers.

“Orange County is not Albemarle or Charlottesville.  It is an entity in itself,” said Pat Crabtree with Montague, Miller and Co.  While her recent experience is that prices are beginning to rise, in fact at the end of the third quarter, the median price was down just over two percent compared to the same time last year, she explained.  Nevertheless, inventory is still low, and average time on the market is a respectable 95 days while the average home sell for 96.7 percent of its list price.  “If you price it right, it will sell,” she continued.

Olson explained that the market is a little slow at the moment, but there have been signs of growth recently.  He added that there aren’t a lot of listings so when a good one goes on the market it tends to get snatched up quickly.  Continued improvement in the Charlottesville and Spotsylvania markets will positively impact Orange as people will have to move further out to enjoy lower prices.

Samuels described a market that moves forward in spurts with a number of sales followed by a slow period.  He also cited the low inventory of homes, a benefit for sellers since they have less competition.  From the buyers’ perspective, there have not been substantial price increases so there are still a lot of good deals out there and that combined with continuing low interest rates mean buyers are able to buy more substantial homes for the money compared to when the market was hot.  While much of the activity is at the low end of the market, farms and estates are also selling.

A specialist in farms and estates, Wiley described the market as a bit slow, but emphasized that there are some “great properties available which means it is a good time to be a buyer.”

First Time Buyers Find Homes in Orange

Many parts of Orange are in easy commuting distance of Charlottesville, and for people living in the Gordonsville part of the county, Richmond is also an easy drive.  This means first time buyers who want a few acres in the country can find a home in Orange County and still enjoy a reasonable and scenic commute to work.  Samuels described the most active part of the market as homes under $225,000, which means a lot of opportunity for first timers.

Crabtree agreed saying that most agents are working with a few first time buyers.  She has worked recently with a young person who had been living with family, but was able to afford a home in spite of what she described as the difficulty of qualifying based on just one salary.

Orange County Buyers

The range of prices and home styles in Orange County means that it also attracts a wide range of buyers.

A lot of buyers are people who are relocating for jobs, Crabtree explained.  She worked recently with someone who moved from Ohio for a job in Albemarle, and someone else who relocated from Northern Virginia for career reasons.

The area appeals to families with children who like the safety of living in a small town where everyone knows each other.  A high point of the year is Halloween when the town of Orange closes off Main Street.  “Hundreds of kids descend in costumes,” Crabtree said in order to participate in the festivities.

Orange is also popular with retirees.  They like the “slow, comfortable pace of life” which is also in “close proximity to world class medical care,” Olsen said.

Retirees also appreciate the prices in Orange, especially those relocating there from high priced markets like northern Virginia, Samuels explained.  They may pass through the area first as tourists visiting the wineries or enjoying the Montpelier races while staying in a local B & B.  “People are always passing through,” Samuels said, “and when they see what Orange has to offer, often, they decide to stay.”

While people from Northern Virginia and others from out of the area often buy in Orange County with the intention of retiring there, “we also see a lot of young professional people who live in Orange and work from home,” Wiley said.  These may be people who have jobs that only require them to be in their office in Charlottesville or DC a couple of days a week.  They like that they can commute easily to work while still being able to enjoy living in a rural area without a lot of development.

Still another type of Orange County buyer is the person looking for more property so they can participate in farming or agro-tourism, a trend that Wiley says is fast growing at the moment.   Some examples include wineries, pick your own pumpkin places and people growing vegetables for restaurants wanting to capitalize on the current demand for local produce.

Of course horse farms are also big in this area.  Wiley serves on the board of the Montpelier Races which he described as the largest event in the county, exceeding fifteen thousand visitors a year.  Crabtree called this event “Orange County’s homecoming.”  “They come from all over,” she said.

Orange County Public Schools

Over 93 percent of the teachers employed by Orange schools are highly qualified.  This fall they will educate approximately 4,979 students in nine schools, including six elementary, two middle schools and one high school. Average pupil/teacher ratios are 1:20 in elementary; 1:24 in middle; and 1:22 in high school.

Approximately 13% of the student population is identified for Academic Gifted services. The division also offers a summer scholars program for enrichment as well as Head Start, Early Head Start and Virginia Preschool Initiative. OCPS utilizes the School Messenger system to notify parents, students, and staff of school-related events.

Three hundred and seventy-two students graduated from OCPS in 2014, of which 172 students received an Advanced Studies Diploma.  Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School, Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment and Distant Learning opportunities are offered by OCPS.

OCPS offers a wide range of Career & Technical Education Courses at the high school level along with advanced math and foreign language.

For additional information, visit www.ocss-va.org.

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

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