A thousand years ago, when my wife and I were house-shopping in Buncombe County, we quickly came to this realization: We couldn’t afford a decent home there.
OK, that was not actually in 1023. It was fall 1997.
Even then, housing was expensive, and we were looking for a house under $120,000. I know that sounds insane now, but that was really stretching our budget back then, and my wife was (and is) a registered nurse and we had a decent household income.
(Note to younger men: Marry a doctor and you’ll be living the dream of being a kept man!)
The last house we looked at, slightly north of town, needed a new roof and deck, and the alleged “third bedroom” in the very musty basement was actually three walls with a blanket for the fourth. So yeah, we gave up on the immediate Asheville area, even though we both worked there.
Instead we opted for a new home in a neighborhood we jokingly refer to as “Vinyl Flats,” as all the homes are vinyl-sided, insulated with Styrofoam sheathing and the neighborhood is relatively flat, at least for the mountains. The 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house cost about $116,000.
A few years later, after my mother-in-law moved in with us and we had two little boys (when people tell me to go to hell, I tell them I’ve already been there), we added a 600-square-foot addition with a large back porch. That cost $25,000, so all in all we had $141,000 in our investment, which we just paid off about a year ago.
So imagine my astonishment when my wife came back from a walk the other day and reported that a neighbor said her home — the same style as ours, but with no addition — just sold for almost $500,000. Remember, we essentially live in a cooler.
I mean, I’m happy our investment has grown so handsomely in 25 years, but — and pardon my French — are you bull-excrementing me?! How in the name of Igloo the Homebuilder has this happened?
And how can any young person or couple ever expect to own a home around here?
My wife and I joke that our “starter” home is also going to be the “finisher home,” because really, where would we buy if we cashed out? Where would we find a 2,200-square-foot home, somewhat nicely landscaped, for say $375,000, so we could pocket a little profit for the geezer years?
OK, maybe South Carolina, but we don’t want to move there. Actually, we like it here in Fletcher, and only partly because they’re building some pickleball courts in Bill Moore Park.
Are there ‘starter homes’ anymore?
Is there even such a thing as a “starter home” around here anymore?
“Geez, that’s a good question,” said Mike Figura, owner of Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty in Asheville. “It’s very hard to find starter homes around here. The starter homes of my childhood and your childhood are definitely a thing of the past.”
Barry Bialik, who develops moderately priced homes in and around Asheville and served as chair of Asheville’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, told me a cool — and affordable — neighborhood in South Asheville he developed is now sold out. Called Atkinsville, the neighborhood has tall, angular double houses and some singles, and they started out at a little over $200,000.
But that was before the pandemic, when home prices went nuts.
“We closed on the last one last week,” Bialik told me.
They were going for $300,000 for the smaller ones, about 800 square feet, and $349,000 for the larger models, about 1,100 square feet with a carport. They’re all two-bedroom, one bath.
As Bialik told Asheville Watchdog in a recent story about affordable housing, “There’s not one piece of land in the city that you can build a house on right now that costs less than $100,000.” That’s key because land prices dictate home prices.
He’s got a project going in Candler right now that he would consider appropriate for a first-time homebuyer, although Bialik acknowledges it’s “still on the edge of what someone can afford” as a first- time home buyer. It’s just under $300,000.
Those are hard to find, though. And considering the median household income in Buncombe County was just under $60,000 as of 2022, a lot of households couldn’t afford that price, at least not without spending an exorbitant amount of their income on housing.
Figura puts out quarterly and annual reports on the local real estate market, and he noted after the first quarter that we’ve still got a seller’s market, even though interest rates keep going up.
“The median home sale price in Asheville and Buncombe County was higher in the first quarter of 2023 than any previous first quarter on record, with a median sale price of $465,000 in Asheville and $426,995 in Buncombe County,” Mosaic’s report stated.
In short, we have a lot more people looking to buy homes here than we have homes, and that drives up prices. On a positive note, Figura did note in his report that housing inventory remains “deep in seller’s territory for every price range but the $1,500,000 and up range.”
So, if you’re a first time buyer with a $1.5 million budget, you’ve come to the right place.
Mosaic’s report had an interesting chart that shows the median sales price for a home in Asheville in 2013 was $217,000. It hit $455,000 in 2022 and stands at $465,000 after the first quarter.
Buncombe County is a little better, with its median home sale price standing at $427,000 this year. In 2013, though, it was $200,000.
I found this little nugget in the county’s Comprehensive Land Use plan update in 2013: “The availability of affordable housing remains a struggle in Buncombe County, though substantial efforts have been undertaken to address this need.”
Some things never change.
“There’s no question Asheville is growing, and there’s no question that’s not going to stop,” Bialik said.
Whether people come here for a better climate, the cool artsy vibe or these gorgeous mountains we live in, the in-migration will continue unabated.
Figura agrees, and he adds a keen observation.
“If we have more people moving here and we don’t have more housing, we’re going to have more homelessness and we’re going to have more expensive housing,” he said. “That’s the choice.”
More building, ideas needed
He and Bialik say the city and county have to look at allowing more housing density, more duplexes and more multi-family housing, and they’ve got to look at extending water and sewer infrastructure in areas that don’t have it. If you’re building a home on a septic system and well, you’re going to need at least a half-acre to make it all work, Figura said.
Figura, who also develops housing, said even easing restrictions on parking requirements for some housing could help spur more building.
Bialik is bringing a couple of proposals before the city’s Planning & Zoning board in July. One would make it easier to divide lots for housing, and it has the potential to open “thousands” of lots for more homebuilding or accessory dwelling units.
His other suggestion revolves around a complicated tool that allows you to build a cluster of smaller homes on a lot. The rules call for a minimum of five and a max of 15 homes, but Bialik says dropping it to a minimum of two and allowing attached homes similar to duplexes could open that market more.
Bialik employs what he calls a “super secret” form in the city’s notorious Unified Development Ordinance that allows regular citizens to make suggestions for text changes.
“The idea of a suburban house on a quarter-acre or third of an acre lot doesn’t work in a growing city,” Bialik said. “We need tools that allow for a lot more density.”
I know city and county officials are doing a lot to help with our affordable housing crunch, and it’s absolutely crucial that it remains a priority for years to come.
We might not be able to build our way out of this, but we have to try innovative approaches.
Meanwhile, people keep moving farther out of town, just like we did a quarter century ago. Watch out Mars Hill, Marion, Edneyville and Sandy Mush!
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com