In Habersham, a community in Beaufort, diversity has been the key to surviving the challenges of the recent real estate market.
"For four years now, you've been hearing doom and gloom in real estate," says Robert Turner, president of Habersham Land Company. "There are markets and places and types of projects that will probably never come back like they were."
But Habersham is surviving -- and even thriving. Turner says 2011 "was when we kind of hit bottom," but this year's total number of home sales (through May 15) are almost equal to the number of homes sold in all 2011.
Turner says Habersham's success in the down market stems from the community's embracing the "new urbanism" movement. This development model is antithetical to suburban sprawl of past decades and focuses on diverse types of housing and sustainable, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use environments.
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Realtor Cherimie Crane of Ballenger Realty in Beaufort has sold a half-dozen homes in Habersham over the past several years, and says the community attracts many types of buyers.
"I've had downsizing buyers, move-up buyers, retirees and families who wanted a walkable neighborhood," she said.
Crane said she takes almost all her clients to Habersham because the community's sweeping live oaks, Lowcountry-style homes, parks and neighborly feel "are part of most people's ideal image of what Beaufort is like. It resonates with them."
She added that Maggie's Pub in Habersham is one of her favorite places to hang out with her husband.
Selling the concept of new urbanism was difficult at first. Turner said a national real estate survey a few years ago included questions such as 'Would you like to live in a place that has alleys?'
"And (people who were being surveyed) were just like, 'What?'" he said.
Only 5 percent to 10 percent of people surveyed preferred new urbanism neighborhoods, which usually have alleys. But Turner said a more recent study showed that about 50 percent of people in the market for a new home want to live in a neighborhood with sidewalks, front porches, small front yards with homes set close to the street, and pedestrian-friendly commercial areas nearby. Less than 4 percent of new neighborhoods under construction nationwide are following this model, Turner said.
A central new urbanist tenet is diversity of home types, which Turner feels has enabled Habersham to weather the economic downturn. The community has traditional single family homes, condos known as "flats," larger townhomes and lofts. When property values began declining in early 2006, the development adapted by building smaller, less expensive homes. Habersham focused on its "flats," which start in the low $200,000s, are 1,200 square feet and available in two- or three-bedroom models.
"We've always been building that," Turner said, but focusing on building more of these types of homes is "working out really well."
In new urbanism neighborhoods that contain different types of homes, developers can react to market conditions by shifting the product mix fairly quickly.
Turner said that for a gated community of single family homes "that cost $500,000 to $700,000, it's very hard for them to drop down and start building houses that sell for $250,000 to $350,000."
Habersham's mixed-use, live-work spaces have appealed to business owners, investors and renters. The residential loft rentals above businesses have been popular "with young people who like to be where the action is."
Chiropractor Jason Haralambous moved from Bluffton to rent one of the live-work spaces. He sees patients downstairs in his office in the Marketplace and lives upstairs. He loves the convenience of being so close to work, especially when his 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter are home for summer vacation.
"If they need me, they come downstairs," he said.
Marketplace as marketing
While many new developments count on their amenities to attract buyers, Habersham has focused on its town center.
The businesses in Habersham's marketplace are what the developer calls a "self-sustaining amenity -- a retail destination" for people from within the community and outside it.
Particularly during special events, farmers markets and First Friday celebrations, people -- and potential residents -- come from all over Beaufort County to shop, stroll and eat in Habersham's restaurants.
For residents, the community has tennis courts, a community boat dock, community garden, playground, outdoor pool and an outdoor pavilion known as the River Retreat. But it doesn't have a golf course.
Golf, Turner said, is "very expensive to maintain. What people want today is just to hang out. They want gathering spots."