West Virginia Beauty Draws Residents

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

West Virginia Beauty Draws Residents


Byline: Amy Rogers Nazarov, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With its natural beauty, abundant historic sites and buildings and a growing number of cultural attractions, West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle has become an appealing destination in recent years for people seeking a respite from city life.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, "we had a number of people who are trying to move out of the Washington area, particularly if they have families," says Gregory Didden, a broker with Greg Didden Associates in Shepherdstown.

"That's waning now," he says, but he says he still has customers looking to buy a second home for vacation use or a larger home than the one they started in a decade ago.

Yet Jefferson County - where the lion's share of Mr. Didden's sales takes place - and the other Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley and Morgan are not so far away as to be immune to the softening real estate market rippling across greater Washington.

Real estate professionals say the number of active listings has doubled or even tripled from a year ago. What's more, a home priced at $321,000 in the first quarter of this year is now down to $299,500, on average, according to data from the Eastern Panhandle Board of Realtors.

As in other parts of the region and country, new construction and slower resales have dramatically increased the number of homes on the market. Development has slowed in recent months, but some say its effects on local infrastructure have been damaging.

Bob Butler is no longer on the Berkeley County Planning Commission, but his 30 years as a commissioner gave him a front-row seat for the region's growth pains. As national developers purchased farmland and dotted it with new homes, "the schools got a workout and so did the police department," as new citizens strained services that had sufficed for years for smaller populations, says Mr. Butler, who farms and sells real estate.

Now, some of those same "developers are doing their homework and making pricing adjustments," says Vicki Clark, a Realtor with RE/MAX Enterprises LLC, which has several offices in the region.

Some developers also are adjusting downward the number of new homes slated for completion, Ms. Clark says. Although not all developers report the number of properties they are building, she says the first quarter saw 512 completions, but only 204 in the second.

Nevertheless, demand is high for specialized listings - such as a historic cottage in town that several buyers "fought over because it was unique," says Jackie Lewis, who opened Greentree Realty of Shepherdstown in 1990 and has been in the business of buying and selling homes for almost 30 years.

She also counts a list of dozens of people expressing interest in a development called Hartzell Gardens, an active adult community that limits residents to households with a member age 55 or older.

"Shepherdstown has never had anything like [Hartzell Gardens] before," Ms. Lewis says. The projects' luxury villas are priced in the mid-$400,000 range, and residents may be able to take occupancy of the Hartzell Gardens villas early in 2007.

Some developers say they are actually raising prices.

Alexis Seck, a real estate agent selling Shepherdstown's Colonial Hills development, says that Atlanta-based Beazer Homes Corp. has raised the prices of its condos, villas, and single-family homes. Currently, the project's condominium town homes start at $239,900; villas - featuring courtyards and loft options - start around $300,000; and the single-family homes, four of which are under construction now for October or November completion, are priced in the mid-$300,000s.

The buying taking place now is fueled in part by builders' incentives ranging from free gas cards to funds for day care to finished basements at no additional cost to buyers, Ms. …

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