As thousands of families begin relocating to the Augusta area for new positions at the Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon, local Realtor Claire Stone says many people are looking in one direction: Columbia County.
“The ones that have a family, it’s definitely Columbia County just because if you have children you are looking for a home with good schools and a nice location,” said Stone, who has more than 35 years of experience with Meybohm Realtors. “That’s the main draw for Columbia County.”
In a presentation earlier this year, Thom Tuckey, director of the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon, said that the Army expects at least 65 percent of the military families relocating to the area for Cyber Command will move to Columbia County and enroll their children in its school system, compared to about 30 percent who will choose Augusta-Richmond County’s schools.
As a result of those numbers, the Army plans to add a new gate west of Robinson Avenue in Grovetown.
“Grovetown is white-hot right now,” said Grant Sutton, another agent for Meybohm Realtors who is also a developing partner at The Retreat at Bakers Place in Grovetown.
The Retreat at Bakers Place is a 150-home subdivision with expansion opportunities for up to 900 homes, he said. Currently, the houses in the subdivision are on the market for an average of only 80 days, Sutton said.
“What’s crazy is, when I ride around our subdivision out there and I look at the car tags that are in the driveways, they are from Virginia, Texas and North Carolina,” Sutton said. “I mean, the majority of the people out there that we are selling to are almost all from somewhere else, which is great.”
In his experience, Sutton said those looking to move to the area for Cyber Command are generally looking at houses in the price range of anywhere from $220,000 to $350,000.
“The sweet spot is going to be about $275,000 to $295,000,” Sutton said. “And you’d be amazed how much new construction pricing has come down. It is so affordable right now. Our price per square foot, and I’m talking about a nice piece of property, is averaging $80 a square foot. That’s a bargain.”
But it’s not all about just the size of the house, Sutton said, adding that many of these newer homes also offer a lot “extras” not available in older homes.
“Not only do they get more square footage, but they are getting a lot of upgrades inside,” Sutton said. “For example, there are many, many houses in our subdivision out in Grovetown that have home theaters in them. And, I mean, big ones. Not like a home theater in a closet.”
Many of the newer homes also offer big bonus rooms, granite countertops, hardwood floors, modern kitchens and arched doorways, Sutton said.
“You are getting a lot for your money. And it’s because new construction has just gotten so affordable and it’s gotten so competitive,” he said. “They weeded out a lot of weak builders and the model has changed. It’s really benefitting the homebuyer right now.”
Back at her office at Meybohm Realtors, where she has held the title of the top agent for nearly every year since 1983, Claire Stone’s phone is constantly ringing with people looking to buy or sell their homes.
Several times a week, Stone says those calls are from families searching for a new home because they are moving to the Augusta area for Cyber Command.
“They are basically coming from Maryland and California, so, for them, when I show them houses in their price range, they just feel this is a fabulous real estate market,” Stone said. “They can just get so much more house here than where they live.”
In fact, a California couple with two boys were floored by the size and quality of the homes that Stone had listed in the Augusta area.
“They showed me a picture of their house in California and it was just a little box,” Stone said, chuckling. “They ended up being able to buy a house on 2.5 acres. And, with this new house, they have a swimming pool and their sons were like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ They were so excited. It is like night and day for them.”
The families that have contacted her from Cyber Command are generally looking in the $275,000 to $500,000 range, Stone said.
“For me, one of the hottest areas right now is Riverwood Plantation,” Stone said, referring to the large master-planned community located on 3,000 acres in Evans. “If you haven’t been out there, they are building houses like crazy. It’s incredible.”
As she looked through her listings, Stone selected a few homes throughout the CSRA that she would show someone interested in moving to the Augusta area for Cyber Command.
One such house was 4160 Dewaal Street in Riverwood Plantation, listed at $329,900.
This five-bedroom, three-bath home in Evans offered hardwood floors in the main living areas, a two-story foyer, walk-in closets, granite counters, a whirlpool tub and a gas cooktop with a stainless vent hood.
She also found a four-bedroom, three-bath home in Grovetown’s Grenelefe Park located at 7015 Hawthorn Way that was listed at $297,500. She thought the Charleston-style home would be ideal for a family because it was located directly across from a park and had a large family room.
In addition to the homes she selected in Columbia County, Stone said she would also possibly show interested buyers from Cyber Command a four-bedroom, 2.5-bath home at 534 Creighton Drive in North Augusta that was listed at $189,900.
“North Augusta would also be a good location,” Stone said. “And this is a really cute house.”
However, of all the homes she selected, not one was in Richmond County.
When asked if she’s had any of those families moving to Augusta for Cyber Command show any interest in looking at homes in Richmond County, Stone honestly said, “I haven’t.”
But she insisted that’s not to say that she doesn’t have a lot of buyers interested in homes located in Richmond County. However, Stone said those buyers just haven’t been individuals or families moving here for Cyber Command.
“Real estate wise, I sell a lot in Richmond County, but specifically talking about those coming to the area for the Cyber Command, I would have to say, ‘No. Not really,’” Stone said. “Most of those clients are looking at Columbia County because a lot of them want new construction.”
While Stone and Sutton clearly agree that most new residents from Cyber Command are interested in relocating to Columbia County, not all local Realtors share those same feelings.
Venus Morris Griffin has been in the real estate business for only six years, but she has achieved an unprecedented level of success and was recently ranked No. 2 at Meybohm Realtors in annual sales.
While she agrees that Grovetown is a popular choice among some moving to the area for Cyber Command, she believes many are looking for other options, too.
“A lot of people go to Grovetown because of the convenience to the base and because you can get a lot of house for a little money,” Griffin said. “But I’m also seeing the trend of people wanting to come to Richmond County as well because a lot of the older houses are built a little more solid and the resale is much better over here.”
The resale value of a home can be extremely important to a buyer accepting a new position with Cyber Command, Griffin said.
“While Grovetown is an awesome area and I love selling out there, there is so much new construction going on, if you do decide you want to move in a couple of years, you are competing against all that new construction,” Griffin said. “So once you’ve added Realtor fees onto the price, your resale can be more expensive than a new house. So a lot of people kind of get themselves in a bind and end up having to rent their houses if they move.”
Due to the fact that she has worked with several military families over the years, Griffin said she has received a number of clients moving to the area for Cyber Command based on referrals from those already on base.
“I get calls all the time from people moving here for Cyber Command. In fact, I had two people call me today,” Griffin said. “It’s kind of a tight network out there and I’m word of mouth, pretty much.”
In her experience, Griffin has found that most of the buyers coming to the area for Cyber Command are looking at homes priced between $250,000 to $350,000.
“I think Meybohm has about 200 listings in the Grovetown area in that range and we have 400 listings in the CSRA in that range,” she said. “And, honestly, we are having a hard time keeping them on the market. We’ve had three or four of our listings that we recently listed sell within a week. I think we listed this past month maybe around 17 and I’d say half of those went under contract within the first week or two.”
Due to the relocation of Cyber Command and the continued growth in the medical community in the Augusta area, Griffin said the real estate market is really thriving throughout the CSRA.
“Last year, I personally had $35 million in sales, which is pretty good,” Griffin said. “This year, through the end of April, I think I had $15 million. That tells you that something crazy is happening, which I’m really grateful for.”
“I think we are going to see a new trend,” she added. “It was a buyer’s market. It is going to turn into a seller’s market.”
With that much interest in the local housing market, Griffin believes growth will happen all across the CSRA.
“With an estimated 5,000 people for Cyber Command coming in, I think growth is going to happen everywhere,” Griffin said. “I don’t think it is just going to be in Grovetown and I don’t think it is just going to be Columbia County. I think it is going to be across the board.”
Even though buyers can get a lot of house for a little money in Grovetown, Griffin insists that is not what everyone is looking for in a home.
“What’s right for me, might not be right for you,” Griffin said. “There is no right or wrong area to live in. It’s just what you want. The Augusta area is so great because we have all of it to offer. We have Grovetown, which is inexpensive, large square-footage houses; we have Columbia County; we have Richmond County, where it is just historical and fabulous; and we have beautiful North Augusta. To each his own. I don’t think there is a better area. It is just personal taste.”
Griffin admits she has a soft spot in her heart for Richmond County and what it has to offer.
“I love Richmond County. In fact, I live in a 100-year-old house here,” she said, sitting in her office off Wheeler Road in Richmond County. “But I can also appreciate somebody who doesn’t want to do what I had to do, which is gut the house and redo it. Many people would rather just move into something ready and I completely understand that, too.”
While Grant Sutton believes Columbia County will be receiving the majority of new residents moving into the area from Cyber Command, he also agrees that growth will continue throughout the entire CSRA.
“There is some interest in Richmond County, believe it or not, out Gordon Highway,” Sutton said. “If you told me 10 years ago that there would be big subdivisions on Gordon Highway going out towards Gate 1, I would have said, ‘That is never going to happen.’ But if you go out Gordon Highway, it comes into the main corridor or vein for Grovetown. So, for that area of Richmond County, you are going to see some growth just because of its proximity to Fort Gordon.”
But the fact of the matter is there are lot of differences between the two school systems and the median sales prices in both Richmond and Columbia counties, Sutton said. Richmond County has some of the best magnet schools in the state and even the country, but Columbia County’s entire school system generally gets praised statewide.
“And you can look at the numbers. The median sales price for a house in Richmond County is $91,750,” Sutton said. “The median sales price in Columbia County is $194,900. That’s a big difference.”
One struggle facing Columbia County, particularly in the areas surrounding Fort Gordon, is that the local government will have to play catch-up regarding the expansion and development of its infrastructure, Sutton said.
“I’m all pro-Columbia County, but probably if there is anything concerning us right now, it is just the rate of growth that we are experiencing,” Sutton said. “Our infrastructure is lagging a little bit behind with all this massive amount of people coming in, which is a fantastic problem to have. We could be out here complaining about how there is no traffic. I’d rather be complaining about all the traffic rather than none.”
For those Augustans who haven’t recently driven to Grovetown, Sutton believes they would be shocked by the development that has occurred just in the past few years.
“About 20 years ago, Grovetown had a stigma that it was all a trailer park community, which, there is nothing wrong with trailer parks, but now, people that are from this area, they have no idea how many housetops are out in Grovetown,” Sutton said. “It is just phenomenal. But there is only just so much Grovetown. So, in my opinion, it will continue to grow towards Harlem.”
The residents and government of Harlem need to be prepared for changes coming their way, Sutton said.
“If we are still here 10 years from now, we’ll be sitting around and saying, ‘Man, I can’t believe all the houses in Harlem. What in the world?’” Sutton joked. “There are already some master plans for communities that haven’t been approved, but they’ve been proposed and they are big.”
Regardless of whether these new Cyber Command residents relocate to Richmond or Columbia counties, Sutton insists the entire area will benefit from the expansion.
“They are telling us that they are going to bring in 5,000 to 7,000 people to the area for Cyber Command. Well, I say, the government never comes in on budget with anything,” Sutton said, laughing. “And when you look at the infrastructure that they are building out there, I think Cyber Command will be as profound as Savannah River Site was when it was first opened. So I think it is going to be huge and absolutely fantastic for the CSRA.”
With major government employers in this area, such as Fort Gordon, Plant Vogtle, SRS, the medical community and the local universities, Claire Stone says the Augusta area benefits by enjoying an extremely stable economy.
“Having Cyber Command relocate here to Augusta is great for Fort Gordon because, some people may not remember, but a few years ago there was a scare that the government might close Fort Gordon. It was a big concern for a lot of people,” Claire Stone. “I think having Cyber Command here seals the deal, for sure. Fort Gordon is here to stay, thank goodness.”