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Charlotte’s real estate market is coming back to life. Whether you’re starting a family, looking to invest, or retiring, there’s a house out there for you

Bulldozers and orange cones are everywhere these days: next door to the Neighborhood Theatre in NoDa, along the light rail tracks in South End, nearly everywhere you want to turn left uptown. It would be easy to assume a real estate renaissance has arrived, but the reality is more complicated. The housing market is still stressed. Many people are still underwater on their mortgages. Investors are flooding the market to take advantage of deals, but buying a house is still a huge decision, fraught with worries—and rewards.

In the following stories, we explore what it means to find a new home—to let go of the house you grew up in, to cope with swollen floorboards and dead frogs in the utility closet, to start a new life when your health is failing and being close to family is the most important goal. Charlotte has options for everyone. You just have to be willing to jump in.

***

Committed

Every house has a story. To find the right one, you may have to make peace with the past, tame the frogs and turtles, and buy a foreclosure in Huntersville 

BY EMILY HARRIS

Illustrations By Lucie Rice

The real estate agent arrived in a gleaming sports car, fedora tilted to the left. The house she came to show us, built in the early 1970s, sat on an acre and a half of land in Huntersville and was surrounded on three sides by undeveloped woods. It had Olive Garden buffet lighting, popcorn ceilings, and cabinets with doors hanging off them. We found dangling wires, broken glass on the patio and walkways, and humidity-swollen floors that bounced and caved as we walked through.

Out back, hidden by seven-foot-tall weeds, was a swimming pool with water that looked like fresh-squeezed kale juice, complete with frolicking frogs and a turtle. The living room was anchored by an enormous full bar with a sink and hook-up for a fridge and, behind it, custom floor-to-ceiling mirrors with coordinating glass shelving. Across from the garage was a structure that wasn’t quite an apartment and wasn’t quite an office but had three rooms, a bath and kitchen, a rooster weather vane, a large hole in one wall, and, inexplicably, 16 phone jacks.

“Huh,” I said.

“Huh,” said my husband.

The showing had been a joke all week: the kinda ugly house. It was the first home I’d ever toured as a buyer. We hadn’t expected to like it—instantly like it. Something about the place was special. It gave us a peaceful feeling no amount of home staging could have triggered. If you looked past all the things that needed some work, you could see it was not a regular house.

***

The night I gave a monk a ride home was the first time I believed staying here could work.

She appeared at a nondenominational meditation class I’d been taking in Cotswold. With saffron robes and a shaved head, she was a onetime lawyer in her 50s who’d grown up in east Charlotte and recently moved back. I was riveted. What was she doing here?

Female monks are not allowed to drive or travel alone. So that night last spring, I volunteered to give her a ride home. She followed me to my 12-year-old Camry, where I tossed my empty coffee mug and kids’ stuffed Elmo out of the passenger seat and into the back, turned off the blaring radio, and silenced the cell phone beeping with texts from friends asking what time I’d be arriving at the bar.

When I finally met up with my friends, I came with a tale of the least Charlotte thing that had happened to me in Charlotte. This led to The Conversation. The one we’d had many times before, with ourselves and others who moved here for jobs in their 20s. Now in our 30s and early 40s, we were asking: Are we staying in this city or what? Not just staying, but ending up? Real roots, all in? And if we left, where was the place we’d decide, at last, to stay?

I have every reason to feel irretrievably entwined with this city. As a reporter for The Charlotte Observer, I had some of the most meaningful experiences in my career here. Over tapas and beers on a patio on East Boulevard, I had my first date with my husband. I gave birth to our two children here. What more could I ask of any city than to give me my three greatest loves? His family is here; his job is here. These are not small things to us. Is there another city so attractive that it makes the gamble of starting everything over sound worth it? Shrug. But when I fly into Charlotte’s airport and see the city glowing at night, I think, Well, that’s pretty. I’ve never felt: This is The Spot.

At the bar that night, one friend leaned toward stay. Charlotte was finally growing into its own and it was fascinating to be part of, he argued. Another friend wasn’t so sure. Like me, she wanted a place that felt more spontaneous, wilder, less Mall of America. But she acknowledged: The monk was promising evidence that there’s more here than it seems.

I drove home lost in thought, waking my husband to tell him: There was this woman, a monk, and I gave her a lift, and I think it means we can buy a house here—a forever house—without my wondering if we should be somewhere else.

***

Back in Huntersville, the real estate agent told us two fascinating things.

The first was that she owned a pet raccoon from a Midwestern farm where the breeding stock had been out of the wild for more than 30 years, and that her raccoon used a litter box and sat on the couch eating popcorn and watching television.

The second was that the house was a special type of foreclosure, a HomePath house. HomePath is a Fannie Mae program meant to help restabilize neighborhoods postcrash. HomePath foreclosures, the agent said, did not allow investors to bid on the house during the first two weeks on the market. We’d have to sign a contract promising that we’d owner-occupy for a minimum of a year. HomePath homes also didn’t require the 20 percent down that made the current housing market seem so out of reach; they required an average of 5 percent down.

Five percent down?

That meant the house was in play for us. And if we wanted to beat investors, we had 10 days to get it.

I’d never bought a house before. I’d found this one on a foreclosure listserv. The agent giving us the tour was not even the listing agent; I’d accidentally booked a viewing through a large real estate firm’s Internet ad.

I called my friend Todd, a local certified financial planner. He’s a rare breed among his peers: trustworthy and practical, successful without being gross about it. I knew he invested in area real estate, including some distressed places. He gave me the number of his personal real estate agent.

***

We’d planned to move out of Plaza Midwood before our oldest child started kindergarten. We wanted good neighborhood public schools, an affordable area in or near the city, no homeowner’s association issuing rules on treehouse placement and exterior paint colors, and some acreage. Needless to say, in Charlotte, this is asking for the world. Something had to give, and we couldn’t budge on schools or price. I didn’t want to budge on land. That left proximity. That meant suburbs.

The suburbs: a place so culturally barren, intellect-stripping, and environmentally obtuse that we’d soon be driving up and down I-77 tossing plastic bags out the window while discussing “Ghana? Is that like Zumba?” just to kill time. Or so the stereotype goes.

People who say they’d never move to the suburbs are quick to mention their love of Thai food and disdain for parents obsessed with their kids’ soccer leagues. I felt the same way. Until I realized that moving out of the city didn’t require me to find Vera Bradley paisley totes remotely attractive. I could live out there and still do whatever I wanted.

For two years, I half-heartedly scanned a weekly email digest of area foreclosures with a minimum of one acre of land. Every week, new listings appeared: 10,000-square-foot mansions on Lake Norman and in south Charlotte, built in 2006 or later. Decades-old ranch houses and manufactured homes listed for five-figure amounts in towns more than an hour away. The options were sad and strange, mute on the story hidden behind each property: bad luck, bad timing, illness, greed, lost love, lost jobs, lost life. I empathized, not knowing their stories, but knowing what it felt like to lose a home. 

The house I grew up in, near Ann Arbor, Michigan, would probably receive mixed marks from real estate agents: old, outdated, small kitchen, no en-suite baths, no walk-in closets, linoleum hallway, an area off the garage that once housed sheep. But I assure you it was magic. Four acres, with mulberry trees, pine trees, lilacs, a creek, rope swing, Queen Anne’s lace, and cattails, all of which my sister and I were allowed to roam unsupervised. Inside, strange closets were built into the fireplace and attic space, inviting Nancy Drew-inspired adventures. An unfinished basement with bare cement floors was perfect for roller skates and pointe shoes. Out front, an elm tree rumored to be the oldest in the county stood watch. Across the road was an expansive view of the icy Huron River, along with train tracks where Amtrak’s Wolverine line from Chicago roared past every afternoon.

My parents’ divorce began when I was 18 and would spill over another seven years, with the house sold around year three. I don’t know if there’s an age when we’re best equipped to handle loss and chaos, but the late teens through mid-20s were not kind years for me. I was rootless, without a safe place to land when things went wrong. I stayed that way for a long time.

A week after I met the monk, the Huntersville listing caught my eye. It didn’t fit our aesthetic taste and was priced too high, but the land and schools were right. You could tell something with the place was off. Basic information in the listing and online public records didn’t add up. I immediately booked a viewing.

***

Watching Todd’s real estate agent, Virginia, walk through the house was like watching a Westminster judge size up a row of hunting dogs. Wearing a navy blazer, she strode back and forth, her face revealing no hints. Then, finally, came a few crisp nods: Good. Not good. Not good. Good. Not good. Would you fill in the pool?

She sent over a general contractor, and then another, to make estimates and work behind an inspector. My husband and I talked through every pro and con, down to the four enormous, two-story white columns. We are cottage people, bungalow people, fans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s blend-into-landscape style. We started calling the house “Grey Gardens” and our potential move “Occupy Huntersville.” Were the columns a deal breaker? No one gets everything.

We bid low, in that lawless way that foreclosures invite, and were rejected. Upped a little, rejected again. Bidding on a HomePath house meant entering and rescinding bids on a computer system. Upped a smidge more. Rejected. We had no choice but to walk.

Three months later, we awoke to a Google alert. Fannie Mae dropped the asking price more than $30,000. After two more rounds of bidding, we got it. A vivid description of the pool knocked off another $1,000 at closing. We were handed the keys and given 30 days to move. On moving day, July 1, 2013, we found Fannie Mae had not changed the locks but removed them, including all the hardware, leaving holes in the exterior doors you could fit a fist through. We couldn’t figure out how to open the garage, and a dead frog lay in the utility closet. As movers worked and I entertained the kids, my husband went to Lowe’s. Wildlife I could handle, but an unlockable house with two toddlers? No way. That night, we fell asleep to what sounded like hundreds of frogs holding a New Orleans funeral march.

A few weeks later, I met an older neighbor out for a walk. Many people in our neighborhood have lived in the same homes since the 1960s and ’70s, she told me. But your house has been sold a lot, because everyone who’s lived there got divorced.

***

In August 2012, a year before we bought the Huntersville house, I made the sort of insane decision only someone who had not had a full night’s sleep in seven months could make: to take a road-trip, alone with my then-2-year-old daughter and still-nursing infant son, to see some of my oldest and dearest friends in Michigan and Ohio. “If you reach West Virginia and decide to turn around, everyone will understand,” my husband said.

One day in Michigan, I felt the pull: Go by the old house. This is universally recognized as a bad choice, because nothing will look the same as it does in memory.

When I got there, I drove up the long driveway, parked, and got out to look at the river. A 20-something guy came outside, confused but polite: Can I help you?

I told him I’d lived there years ago.

You want to come inside? he offered.

No, I said, without leaving.

I had my kids with me. He was a stranger. Yet my gut told me he wasn’t a weirdo. Baby on my hip, toddler holding my hand, we went in. 

It did look like my memory, for the most part. What I never could have guessed is that the changes would be a delight: The owners had painted murals on the wall above the fireplace. They’d turned an acre of the property from lawn back into native prairie. They’d turned a wall at the back of the house into windows, allowing for a view of the woods. I felt, to my surprise, total relief for myself and happiness for the house. The owners were people who understood the magic of the place, who knew it was not like owning a house with builder’s beige walls and a sign in the hallway reading Live, Laugh, Love. The house was in the good hands it deserved.

***

I’m still not in love with Charlotte, or Huntersville. But this house—it’s as if we galloped out here on horseback, planted a flag in the soil, made the claim. We’re minutes from both a farmers’ market and a Target. The mayor lives a few streets away. Another neighbor races his ATV down the middle of the road.

We still haven’t bought any new furniture and have no renovation budget. At the three-month mark, it began to feel like we’d always been there. Rooms still unpainted, we stripped the brass knocker off the black front door and painted it highlighter-bright green.

I wander the property these days with the kids, wondering which of the dogwood trees will bloom first in the spring, which of the oaks and sweet gum will turn the brightest in the fall, which trees are favored by the hawks and which the blue jays. I want to learn the best spot for a huge vegetable garden and  to plant apple and peach trees, even if it means waiting five years for fruit. I’d want previous owners to know I understand this is not a regular house. I’ll do my best to let magic live here.

Coming from a family that was shattered by divorce and lost a house in the process, I have a healthy respect for how little in life is permanent. We can choose to plow ahead anyway, hoping for forever but knowing all anyone can do is savor love and dreams for as long as we’re allowed to hold them. 

I tell my daughter all the time that she’s beautiful. As 4-year-olds tend to do, she’s latched onto the word and uses it with abandon. “This is beautiful macaroni and cheese,” she’ll say at dinner. “Look at my beautiful socks!” she gasps as I rip open a new Hanes multipack. When we leave for preschool in the morning, backing down the steep driveway and onto the street, she waves at the white house on the hill. “Bye, beautiful house! Bye, beautiful house!” Each time, as the last two-story not-us white columns disappear from view, I think to myself: Hello, beautiful home. Hello, beautiful home.

Emily Harris is a frequent contributor to Charlotte magazine, most recently writing about Elevation Church. She’s on Twitter at @heyemilyharris.

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Investor’s Market

How to cash in on Charlotte’s low prices

Two years ago, Chuck Slaybaugh approached friends and family about investing in local real estate. The housing market hadn’t yet shown solid signs of a rebound, and Slaybaugh knew a young investment fund would be vulnerable. Yet as a former analyst and bank executive, he was familiar with weighing risk versus reward. He saw opportunity in foreclosures and short sales—homes the banks had taken over and were selling at a discount. He planned to buy homes and rent them out, hoping to earn an annual 8 percent return on investment, with more profit coming when he sold the property.

Today, Slaybaugh’s fund has amassed nearly $4 million of property and is poised to see profits far larger than he predicted.

As Charlotte’s housing market improves, investors are rushing in, lured by the prospect of steady returns. The city had the eighth-highest number of investment sales of any major metropolitan area in the country last year, according to the real estate research firm RealtyTrac. Institutional investors (defined as people buying 10 or more homes within one year) bought one out of every nine homes in 2013. Charlotte was more popular than Las Vegas, Dallas, and Miami. “Charlotte’s affordable and has a good economy that’s improving,” RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist says. “There’s going to be demand for housing.” 

Investors range from Wall Street-backed groups to foreign nationals looking to boost retirement income to locals accumulating houses piece by piece. Slaybaugh and his business partner, Yuriy Vaynshteyn, are longtime Charlotte residents. One reason they chose to invest here, and not elsewhere, was they knew professionals who could market and maintain their properties. But mostly, they knew the city’s demographics were promising: The influx of newcomers is expected to continue, and many of them are young professionals or families earning middle-class wages who will start off as renters.

Investors covet the same characteristics that many families want in a home: newer properties (those built in the 1990s or later are ideal) in stable, middle-class neighborhoods with good schools. Vinyl villages—homes with brick facades on the front and vinyl siding elsewhere—are popular. So are houses with a minimum of three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, priced  between $40,000 and $250,000. The less-expensive homes tend to have been neglected or are in distressed neighborhoods, which can mean more work upfront but larger profits when the housing market improves.

Larger investors are driving smaller ones out of the market, says Frances More, who specializes in distressed property sales as broker-in-charge with Carolinas Metro Realty. But she predicts that will change. Large funds will leave Charlotte as investors move around the country chasing the highest returns. “And that will create another opportunity,” she says.

LOGAN CYRUS

Chuck Slaybaugh began investing in local real estate two years ago, and his fund has now amassed nearly $4 million of property.

Slaybaugh’s fund targeted homes within 30 miles of uptown, but he’ll start searching farther out for future investments. (He’s now managing partner at VS Properties, a real estate investment firm.) He suggests looking in places with emerging economies such as Gaston County and Iredell County because Mecklenburg County “has been picked over pretty clean.”

In general, real estate experts say investors should expect to hold onto property for at least five years and anticipate annual returns in the low single digits. It’s crucial to avoid overpaying for homes—something that’s easy to do now that competition is pushing up prices and creating bidding wars.

“Invest with your head and not your heart,” Slaybaugh says. “Buying a piece of real estate, like in fishing, there’s a real thrill when you get close to it and think it’s a deal. You walk into a house and there’s new carpet and the smell of fresh paint. It’s easy to fall in love. But you have to use every tool you can to get the right price.”

******

The Grandchild Effect

An Indiana couple moves to Charlotte to be closer to family and discovers a new home

BY KERRY SINGE

Bob and Nancy Minnick were living on a 40-acre farm in southern Indiana when Bob suffered a heart attack eight years ago. They had planned to retire in their 4,700-square-foot, custom-designed home. But after it took doctors 11 attempts to revive Bob, the couple’s two daughters insisted they move closer. One daughter lived in Baltimore, the other lived in Charlotte—along with two of the couple’s adult grandchildren.

Charlotte’s lush tree canopy, clean streets, and stately homes impressed the Minnicks. For them, this was the obvious choice. “It was no contest,” says Bob, 82, who along with Nancy, 80, owned and operated a clothing manufacturer that catered to amusement parks and nursing schools. “Charlotte has beautiful neighborhoods and ambience.”

For years, Charlotte has attracted retirees lured by the temperate climate and affordable living. Many, like the Minnicks, moved to be closer to family. The Great Recession slowed the migration. But real estate agents and homebuilders say the pace has picked up now that the housing market has improved and transplants can sell their homes to move here. “Grandchildren are like magnets,” says Mark Gibbs, the Charlotte division president for David Weekley Homes. “We’ve seen a resurgence in demand, especially from out of state.”

The Charlotte area offers plenty of options for seniors: apartments, continuing-care retirement communities, neighborhoods restricted to those 55 and older. Ellen Feuerhaken, a real estate agent with Allen Tate who specializes in helping seniors, says Charlotte will need more housing than its current supply—especially when local baby boomers start retiring en masse.

Builders are responding. At David Weekley Homes, new designs include more master bedrooms on the main floor, fewer steps, compact layouts, smaller yards, wider doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, and support for grab bars in bathrooms. Homes with newer appliances can reduce allergens, creating a healthier environment for older residents, Gibbs says.

Feuerhaken says there’s no favorite housing style or neighborhood that appeals to all seniors. Their priority “is to be near family. But not so close they have to babysit.”

LOGAN CYRUS

After moving from Indiana to Charlotte, Nancy and Bob Minnick found a new home at Southminster Retirement Community.

Sometimes it takes trial and error for buyers to find the right fit. The Minnicks rented an apartment when they first moved here in 2007. But they didn’t enjoy hearing their neighbors through thin walls, so they bought a large, single-family home in the Somerset neighborhood of Waxhaw. They held parties to get to know neighbors but didn’t develop the friendships they craved. They also discovered they had too much space.

When Nancy was searching for a place to exercise, a friend suggested the pool and fitness center at Southminster Retirement Community off Park Road in south Charlotte. The Minnicks paid to join the community’s Compass Club, and as they met more residents, decided Southminster was where they wanted to be. In 2011, they moved into the community.

Bob’s watercolors and acrylics now adorn the walls of their 1,250-square-foot apartment. A second bedroom serves as a sunlight-filled art studio. On a recent morning, the Minnicks’ telephone rang several times as neighbors called to ask about Bob’s recent foot surgery. Plans for the weekend included a standing dinner date with a favorite couple, also Southminster residents.

“The home [in Indiana] was planned to be a retirement home. We thought we would never move,” Nancy says. “But we’re glad we’re down here.”

Kerry Singe is a freelance writer and television producer in Charlotte. Email her at kerrysinge@gmail.com.

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Buyer's Tips

Professional help
If you’re thinking about moving or want to bring your aging parents to town, consider using a real estate agent trained in helping retirees. Realtors with a Seniors Real Estate Specialist designation from the National Association of Realtors specialize in counseling clients 50 and older through major financial and lifestyle transitions, including relocating, refinancing, or selling a family home.

Make the right choice
•  Do you want to live near people your age?
•  Do you want to pay homeowners’ association fees?
•  Do you want to maintain a yard? 
•  Are there activities you enjoy nearby, such as a golf course, book clubs, or art galleries?
•  Are services such as doctors and grocery stores easily accessible?

Home design
More builders are designing homes with retirees in mind. Options include homes with fewer stairs, master bedrooms on the main floor, smaller yards, easy-to-open door handles, and walk-in tubs or showers with benches.

Communities
If you want to live in a single-family home near people your age, consider an age-restricted community.

Medical care
Some communities offer a combination of living options and medical care. Known as Continuing Care Retirement Communities, these tend to be the most expensive of long-term care options, providing lifetime housing, social activities, and varying levels of medical care.

Fun fact
According to the National Association of Realtors, 24 percent of Charlotte buyers ages 65 and older bought a home for retirement in 2011, compared to 16 percent of U.S. buyers in the same age bracket.

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