By Celeste M. Smucker–
Go west across Afton Mountain to discover the independent cities of Waynesboro and Staunton where residents relish their panoramic views and enjoy amenity-rich, small town lifestyles complete with rapidly growing commercial sectors that offer all the conveniences of life in big cities. Known for its easy access to outdoor activities, this area also has an inspiring history and an active arts scene with everything from music and theatre to acclaimed visual arts.
Waynesboro and Staunton are conveniently located near the crossroads of Interstates 64 and 81 allowing local residents easy access to jobs and leisure activities that are as close as Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Roanoke and as far away as DC. The area also attracts major employers like Hershey, McKee Foods, Hollister, Target and Nibco that contribute to its consistently low unemployment rate.
Real estate-wise, homebuyers from first timers to retirees move here because of the laid-back lifestyle, a host of things to do and the spectacular natural beauty. They also like the many housing options and prices that are lower than are available elsewhere.
Agents report the market is hot, characterized by declining average days on the market and dwindling inventories plus, in some instances, multiple offers on the same house.
Life in Shenandoah Valley Cities
Positive reviews and terrific home prices bring a wide demographic of homebuyers to Staunton and Waynesboro.
What makes a community feel like home? Allen Persinger with RE/MAX Advantage tells prospective home owners that Staunton is a friendly community and “a diverse and welcoming place.” He adds that if you prefer privacy it is available as well. In other words, everyone can feel at home.
Minnie Stevenson with KlineMay Realty, who has lived in the Augusta County area for years, agrees stating, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The peaceful quality of life is hard to beat.”
Over 30 years ago, Ed Davis with KlineMay Realty relocated to Staunton from Richmond. After considering a move to the shore, he and his wife decided they preferred the gorgeous mountain views that can be enjoyed from all directions and from anywhere in the area. Years later he is still glad they moved there stating, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
Many of Davis’ clients feel the same way. “They fall in love with the small town atmosphere of Staunton” because it reminds them of “the way it used to be,” he said. He referenced Gypsy Hill Park with its old fashioned bandstand, ranked #5 of 35 things to do in Staunton by Tripadvisor. They also love the charming downtown area where “people are out on the street in the evening even in winter,” he added.
Waynesboro with its own unique vibe is also very attractive as evidenced by a real estate market that is even more active than the one in Staunton. Not only does it offer easy access to a host of outdoor activities such as backpacking or hiking the nearby Appalachian Trail, paddlers can enjoy the Waynesboro water trail, while spectacular mountain views are available by traveling just three miles to the junction of Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If eating out is something you do frequently, Waynesboro has a growing number of options featuring lots of new restaurants, Stevenson said. Local residents also look forward to an easy drive to Charlottesville, which is appealing to commuters and regular participants in UVA’s sports and cultural activities as well as history buffs and shoppers heading to the Downtown Mall.
Cultural Activities Abound
Cultural activities are a big part of what make both Waynesboro and Staunton special places to live, and residents and visitors can enjoy everything from live theatre to visual arts to music from classical to bluegrass.
Waynesboro’s popular Wayne Theatre was built in 1926. Originally a vaudeville theater, thanks to recent renovations it is now “a state-of-the-art performing arts center, hosting nationally acclaimed music and drama acts.” It also houses a gallery where visitors and theatre-goers can browse a variety of changing exhibits. Upcoming events include performers such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Yarn, Derik Nelson and Family and The Petty Hearts.
Waynesboro is also home to internationally renowned artist P. Buckley Moss who has a gallery on Main Street where she exhibits her works, while the nearby P. Buckley Moss Barn is the site of special events open to visitors, collectors and friends throughout the year.
A big plus for Staunton residents is the Heifetz International Music Institute at Mary Baldwin College that is “dedicated to the artistic growth and career development of some of the most talented and promising young musicians in the world.” These young artists come together for an annual six week summer program and give much anticipated performances that are not only popular among visitors and local residents but are some of many reasons people choose to live in Staunton, Davis explained.
Another summer musical happening is the Staunton Music Festival that this year will bring 30 events between August 11 and 20, some of which are free. The musically diverse festival features performances at different venues around town with everything from chamber music to music from Hollywood to orchestral pieces, and ends with a period-instrument performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the event’s last day.
Of course the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton draws a worldwide audience for Shakespeare performances and more. Known for staging its plays under conditions similar to what viewers experienced during Shakespeare’s time, the sets are simple and the same lighting is shared by the actors and their audience. “It really brings Shakespeare to life,” Davis said.
Active Real Estate Markets
The local real estate market is keeping agents occupied. “We had a really busy December,” Stevenson said, “and the market hasn’t slowed since.” She expressed concern about a lack of inventory, especially in homes suitable for first time buyers.
She believes part of the reason for this recent activity is that people are finally concerned about rising interest rates and want to buy before they get out of reach. Some are young families who realize that renting doesn’t make sense financially. There are also a lot of Millennials coming into the market for the first time who are connecting with some of the younger agents like the one in her office who had $1.6 million in sales in his first year.
The market is going “really well,” said Betty Aguilar with Nest Realty’s recently opened Shenandoah Valley office in Staunton. She added that there have been 240 sales contracts in Waynesboro alone this year, an increase of 16 percent over the same time last year. She added that the Staunton market is also hot.
Aguilar’s clientele includes commuters, people with jobs in Charlottesville who have been priced out of the real estate market there, who are willing to take on the 25 minute drive from Waynesboro on the interstate in order to be a home owner. Of course, Route 250 is a good alternative when needed, and while the potential for fog on Afton Mountain is a concern for some, in reality this is an issue less than 30 days of the year, she continued.
While Aguilar sees many retirees from points north such as DC and Northern Virginia or New England they come from all over to take advantage of the lifestyle in Waynesboro and Staunton.
Recent clients were a couple who had retired to Florida but didn’t like the congestion there and decided to move to the Shenandoah Valley. Like many others, another part of the reason they chose this area is that they wanted to live where they could experience all four seasons.
Still another group of buyers are downsizers who have been living in Crozet and other places to the west of Charlottesville, Aguilar said. Most are already accustomed to coming over the mountain to shop so are comfortable with the area, and they also like that, for the same price, they can buy a home on a half acre compared to a tenth of an acre, she said.
“Inventory is down, especially in the $250,000 to $275,000 price range,” said Jonathan Mason with Long and Foster Real Estate. Volume is also down compared to a year ago, but he attributes that to the lack of inventory. He has a list of buyers waiting for the right house to come on the market and finds the purchase process takes longer because of the inventory shortage.
Mason has helped buyers from many different areas move to Staunton, attracted by its charm, and has experienced several instances of multiple offers on some of the homes there. He also finds Waynesboro to be a popular choice, especially for people who have jobs or other connections, such as family, in Charlottesville.
Staunton and Waynesboro Buyers
A big incentive for people to move to a home in Staunton or Waynesboro is the favorable housing prices there. Mason explained that Charlottesville shoppers are surprised when their dollars go as much as 30 percent further in the Waynesboro housing market.
First time buyers are some of the many who can benefit from the favorable prices in this area. For example, Long and Foster’s market report for the month of April showed a median sales price in Staunton of $127,950, and for Waynesboro it was $209,000, good news for first time buyers.
Aguilar shared that investors are taking advantages of this market as well, purchasing homes (in some cases for less than $100,000) that need work, doing some basic renovations and making them available to first time buyers at prices they can afford. Since most low down payment loan programs require the homes be in good condition, this trend works for everyone.
Some of Mason’s buyers are retirees who come from out of state and could afford to settle elsewhere, including Charlottesville. Part of why many choose Waynesboro or Staunton is that, having lived in the Northern Virginia, DC or the Northeast, they are done with congestion. For them a quieter more laid-back lifestyle has more appeal.
Davis, a designated Seniors Real Estate Specialist works with a lot of retirees attracted by Staunton’s social and cultural amenities. When they first arrive, he explained, they may buy a big house that seems cheap compared to the one they sold in Northern Virginia and points north. After a few years they sell it and move into something smaller and all on one level that requires less care, but is still in the area.
Davis’ work with seniors has led him to form a group called Augusta Senior Resources with members from different specialties that serve this age group. These include an estate attorney, CPA, trust officer, long term care insurance agent, mover, de-clutterer and many others with special services to help seniors at different stages of transition whether it is aging in place or moving into assisted living.
Are you looking for a place to call home? Whether you are a first time buyer or a retiree looking to enjoy our area’s history and culture, consider the cities of Waynesboro and Staunton. Both offer impressive amenities as well as prices that are unheard of on the other side of Afton Mountain.
Celeste Smucker is a writer and blogger who lives near Charlottesville.