Beaufort County housing market rises in October despite insurance worries

dburley@islandpacket.comNovember 18, 2013 

Despite swelling flood insurance rates in low-lying areas of Beaufort County, October sales of existing houses and condominiums marched ahead of October 2012 figures, continuing an upward trend, according to data released by S.C. Realtors.

In the Hilton Head Island area, sales rose by 11.7 percent, from 283 to 316 homes, and the Beaufort area's sales rose 13.6 percent, from 103 to 117 homes sold.

The Beaufort area's median sales price for the month dropped 6.3 percent to $178,000, while the Hilton Head-area median price rose 6.3 percent to $249,833.

But the higher sales numbers don't mean flood-insurance rate hikes that took effect Oct. 1 haven't spoiled some deals, real estate agents say.

"What you don't see in the statistics is the location and age of these properties (being sold)," said Edward Dukes, broker-in-charge at Lowcountry Real Estate in Beaufort. "I know the beach is still slow. I'm sure some people saw (the flood insurance hikes) coming and didn't make offers on properties."

The rate hikes are part of Congress' attempt to stabilize the debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program. Key to the measure is wiping out subsidized flood protection for homes in high-risk flood zones, a practice that dates to the 1960s.

More than 7,000 of Beaufort County's 93,000 properties with flood policies have subsidized rates, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For some homeowners, rates have jumped by 25 percent and will continue to rise until full market risk is realized. In other cases -- as with the sale of a home -- subsidies will be wiped out at once.

The rate hikes particularly affect older homes in low-lying communities such as Sea Pines and North and South Forest Beach on Hilton Head. Buyers there could see yearly rates higher than $10,000.

"In those areas affected, that is definitely a consideration for the purchaser," Jean Beck, executive vice president of Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors, said of the higher rates. "But not all people have found it to be an obstacle."

Beck said she knows of buyers who plan to tear down a home or raise it a few feet to make it more compliant with flood maps.

In some flood zones, raising a home from 4 feet below flood level to base-flood level would save more than $8,000 a year in insurance premiums, according to a presentation on the S.C. Department of Natural Resources website.

Andy Twisdale, an agent with Charter One Realty on Hilton Head, said there has been less buyer activity on resort properties hit hard by flood insurance increases.

But other market trends are at play, as well, including fewer buyers willing to spend top dollar on a second home they will only use a few times a year, he said.

"People are looking for primary residences," he said. "The thought of a home as an investment is changing."

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