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High Country experiencing unprecedented surge in homebuyers

Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a three-part series on the current state of the housing market in Avery County and the High Country.

HIGH COUNTRY — Western North Carolina is experiencing an unprecedented housing buy up during a year that has proved to be tumultuous for many urban areas, and regions such as Avery, Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties are appearing more attractive than ever to potential homeowners.

According to the High Country Association of Realtors, the aforementioned counties saw a 72-percent increase in residential home sales for month of July, or 363 sales compared to 211 sales the previous year. Additionally, the median sales price for residential homes rose by 21.7 percent and the number of land transactions rose by 93 percent.

For the month of August, the story is mostly the same. Total home sales rose by 47.4 percent, and the median sales price rose by 32 percent. Overall, the number of homes available on the market more than halved over the span of a year, decreasing from more than 1,600 available homes to less than 800.

The cause for this sudden frenzy on the High Country housing market? According to Pam Vines, owner of Jenkins Realtors and President of High Country Association of Realtors, one contributing factor is a large number of professionals who are realizing that they do not have to live in crowded urban settings in order to work from home.

“A lot of it I think is, number one, even during this crazy pandemic that we’re going through, people have realized that working from home is a better option than they ever thought it was,” Vines said. “As people are realizing that, why in the world would they want to be someplace where they’re just hunched up making their money?”

Global Workplace Analytics reports that about 3.6 percent of the employee workforce works from home at least half-time, and estimates that by the end of the year, 25 to 30 percent of the workforce will be working from home multiple days of the week.

While working from home in the Blue Ridge Mountains does appear to be attractive for many professionals, there are other considerations as to why so many people from places like Florida and Texas, as well as and the coast and urban areas of North Carolina, are flocking to the region.

One notable consideration is the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the majority of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. occurred in urban areas, especially early on. The sharp rise in crime may also be a factor. From May to June, homicides in 20 major US cities increased by 37 percent and aggravated assaults increased by 35 percent over the same time period, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.

Moreover, commercial burglary, or theft by breaking into a business, spiked by 200 percent in late May before declining just as sharply. When these factors are considered, in addition to recent natural disasters such as the unmitigated wildfires in California and the hurricanes on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, houses in the High Country have difficulty staying on the market.

“We seem to be a protective little haven,” Vines said.

Vines added that clients have been buying homes “across the board” of Jenkins Realtors’ available inventory, with many homebuyers being the usual suspects that purchase homes in the region — late-stage professionals who are on the verge of retirement.

“We’re still seeing people that are toward the end of their career or in the middle of a very successful career that are buying these $800,000 to $5 million homes, and a lot of those are coming through as cash deals,” Vines said.

However, Vines has also seen an uptick in the number of families who are purchasing homes, as well as Appalachian State graduates who have realized that working from home affords them the opportunity to return to the scenic area of their alma mater.

“We’re also seeing an uptick of families. They want to spend more quality time (with their kids), but they’re still in the $400,000 and under range, and just about anything under $400,000 is going to be gone in a matter of 48 hours. Once those properties hit the market, there are multiple offers,” Vines said.

The High Country has not seen a housing market this robust since 2005, prior to the 2008 financial crisis when the housing bubble that had built up over the decades conceivably burst.

Avery County Tax Administrator Bruce Daniels reported that the number of qualified sales was 144 in August and 155 in July. Qualified sales are defined as property sales that occur between willing participants, and the county tracks the property’s tax value based on the property’s completion date and whether or not if was furnished when the sale was made.

“I hate to use the word ‘unprecedented,’ but simply, it really truly is. The number of sales we’re seeing over the last two to three months are just really through the roof as far as what we’re normally accustomed to seeing. I would normally have to go back to 2005, 2006, 2007 to even approach these numbers, and even then, we’re still 20, 30, 40 sales lower per month than what we’re seeing right now,” Daniels said.

The sudden increase in housing market activity has left some county officials perplexed. At the onset of the pandemic, Avery County, like many other counties, was planning on operating on a shoestring budget, as tax revenues from sales, property taxes and utility bills were expected to be substantially lower.

“I don’t know if it’s completely Covid-related, or if it’s related to the unrest we’re seeing in some urban areas. I don’t know what would be leading to these numbers, but it certainly seems to be beneficial for the county at the moment,” Daniels said.

Many of these sales, which include homes, apartments, condominiums and vacation properties, typically take one or two months to finalize due to a rigorous inspection process. Many of these sales that were recorded in July and August were likely initiated in May or June, when Avery County had little or no recorded COVID-19 cases.

Nevertheless, the added population of new homeowners may prove to be beneficial to the area both economically and based on sole population numbers, which the federal government uses to allocate funds. This will largely depend on how many newcomers decide to be full-time residents, however, as well as part of the community as a whole. The 2020 High Country housing boom could have sweeping implications for years to come.

“We have to be smart about it,” Vines said. “If this trend continues for another year or two or three, what about our rural broadband? That has to pick up in speed. We have to get that going. We have to be looking ahead to make sure we’re not just having a big party right now. We need to be planning and thinking about how we’re going to be handling this influx.”

Governor adjusts guidelines to allow K-5 in-person learning

RALEIGH — Elementary school students will now be allowed to return to school for in-person learning per Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest decision on Sept. 17 to ease restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the governor’s decision, North Carolina school districts will be allowed to choose Plan A for elementary school students. Plan A allows for full in-person classes and instruction for students, teachers and staff. Face covering requirements, social distancing measures and symptom screenings are mandatory under Plan A.

Gov. Cooper acknowledged that Plan A may not be the right option for certain school districts. Districts will still retain the option to teach under a hybrid approach or to teach solely online through Plan C.

“Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts and for every family. Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families who choose it, and districts will have the flexibility to select a plan based on their unique situation,” Cooper said.

Instruction for students in middle school and high school will remain under Plan C or B until further notice. The governor said that the state is able to loosen the educational restrictions due to citizens stabilizing the number of COVID-19 cases and that education has been the most challenging matter to address during the pandemic.

“The more people who wear masks and act responsibly, the more kids we can put back in school,” Cooper said.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Director Mandy Cohen said the decision to expand in-person learning options for K-5 students was related to research that shows that children younger than 10 are less likely to be infected, development illness and spread the virus to others.

“When I say that younger children transmit the virus less often, it doesn’t mean that it’s not ever,” Cohen said. “Less likely does not mean we eliminate risk. That is why no matter what plan a district chooses to move forward with, there are strong safety protocols.”

Earlier in the press conference, Cohen reported that since school started, the state has seen 10 school clusters across the state involving a total of 16 students and 46 staff members. Case numbers for school-age children have declined within the past weeks, and there does not appear to be community spread of the virus in districts that are operating in a hybrid in-person model versus an all-remote-learning model.

According to Cohen, COVID-19 indicators continue to remain stable. Visits to the emergency room with COVID-19 symptoms continues to decline. Overall, the number of new cases is declining, but the state is still seeing a high number of daily reported cases. The number of positive tests in comparison to the total number of tests is declining, and the number of hospitalizations is declining.

The number of confirmed cases reached its peak around the Fourth of July holiday, trended downward and then increased once again once public school and universities reopened. However, the overall number of positive cases is trending downward. The state continues to expand access to testing, provide free testing, provide a better turnaround time for results, hire more contact tracers and provide personal protective equipment.

On Friday, Sept. 18, Avery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman released a letter on Avery County’s educational status in response to the governor’s announcement.

“The Governor’s announcement of K-5 students attending school under Plan A will result in no changes to our current level of operations or services to students or families,” Brigman stated. “The Avery County School System will continue to operate on the 4x1 schedule for all students enrolled for in-class instruction and 5 days per week for our Avery Virtual Academy students and staff. Beginning Monday, Sept. 28, through Oct. 5, the administration and staff will be reviewing individual student success and surveying students and families participating in AVA this first nine-week period. Students and families need to consider their current level of success on the virtual option and make decisions regarding continuation or returning to in-class instruction. We have established timelines for upcoming transitions from virtual instruction back to the in-class setting. Students in grades K-8 will either transition back to in-class instruction on Oct. 19, 2020, or they will remain enrolled in AVA through the remainder of first semester. We will continue to review progress of each high school student enrolled in AVA weekly with surveys of intent to be conducted in late November to determine who will continue on the AVA platform or return to in-class instruction for second semester.”

In other news, the state announced the activation of the National Guard to assist with potential flooding that could have occurred due to Hurricane Sally. The Guard deployed high clearance vehicles and prepared water rescue teams.

The hurricane most affected central and eastern portions of the state, but only marginally. Sally’s remnants dropped approximately an inch of rain in the Triangle area and a couple of inches closer to the Caroina coast.

COVID 19: Pair of LMC students among latest positive Avery cases

RALEIGH — As of Tuesday, Sept. 22, according to latest available dashboard data, COVID-19 cases in North Carolina had increased by approximately 7,500 cases over the previous seven-day mark, as the state has more than 194,381 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. The state has experienced a decrease in hospitalizations over the span of the last week, however, as NCDHHS reported on Sept. 22 that 885 people were hospitalized, compared to 916 hospitalizations reported seven days earlier.

NCDHHS reports an additional 136 North Carolinians have died related to the virus in the same seven-day span, as the agency reports 3,247 overall deaths.

In a September 21 release, TRHD reported Avery County with two new positive community cases of COVID-19, which puts them at 197 positive community cases, 187 community members have recovered, nine community members are active, and one community death. Also within the release, TRHD reported that the two new county positive cases on Monday were students with Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.

“One has returned home (out of state) to recover, (while) the other is in isolation,” Diane Creek with TRHD reported.

TRHD added on Sept. 21 that the prison reported zero positive cases on that day for a total of 172 overall cases in that congregate living location, with 13 inmates currently active and 159 inmates reported to have recovered.

Avery possesses the greatest number of cases per 10,000 people in the High Country, according to NCDHHS data, with 186 cases per 10,000 residents. In comparison, NCDHHS reports Watauga has 106 cases per 10,000 residents, while Ashe has 93 cases per 10,000 residents. Only Cherokee County (204 cases per 10,000 residents) has a higher ratio of all Western NC counties bordering neighboring Tennessee.

“Public health staff is working to complete the investigations and they are contacting close contacts to contain the spread of disease. To protect individual privacy, no further information about the cases will be released,” the Sept. 21 TRHD release stated. “The Yancey, Mitchell and Avery County health departments will keep the public informed by announcing any additional cases that may arise through our local media partners.”

Yancey County had one new positive case on Sept. 21, which puts the county at 218 positive cases, with 215 having recovered, two active cases and one death.

Mitchell County on Sept. 21 reported four new positive cases for a total of 168, with 153 having recovered, 11 active cases and four deaths.

Nationwide, Johns Hopkins University & Medicine reports more than 31.3 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with a total of 6,860,484 cases in the U.S. as of Tuesday morning, Sept. 22, with 199,962 reported deaths nationwide and more than 2,615,949 individuals across the country reported as having recovered from the virus.

The N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health, reporting hospitals and commercial labs report 2,817,539 completed tests as of Tuesday morning, Sept. 22, according to N.C. DHHS. The estimate of people presumed to have recovered from the virus as of Sept. 21 as 176,422 statewide, with the estimate provided each Monday by NCDHHS. NCDHHS estimates a median time to recovery of 14 days from the date of specimen collection for non-fatal COVID-19 cases who were not hospitalized, or if hospitalization status is unknown. The estimated median recovery time is 28 days from the date of specimen collection for hospitalized non-fatal COVID-19 cases.

In neighboring counties, Watauga County has reported 595 positive tests and one death among residents, Caldwell County has 1,571 positive tests as of Sept. 22 with 18 deaths, while Wilkes County has 1,160 reported cases and 32 deaths, according to NCDHHS. Ashe County has 251 cases and one death, and the department reports McDowell County with 883 cases and 26 deaths. Burke County reports 2,031 cases and 35 deaths attributed to the virus, according to NCDHHS.

In Tennessee, Johnson County reports 648 cases with two deaths, while Carter County reports 1,126 cases and 27 deaths as of Sept. 22, according to statistics from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Statewide, Mecklenburg County has reported the most cases with 27,586. Wake County is reporting 16,943 cases and Durham County reports 7,523 cases, according to Sept. 22 NCDHHS statistics. At least 50 of North Carolina’s 100 counties report at least 1,000 COVID-19 cases.

The reported testing numbers could be incomplete due to differences in reporting from health departments and other agencies. Sources include Toe River Health District, AppHealthCare, NCDHHS, Caldwell County Health Department and Tennessee Department of Health.

Updated news and information on the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s response can be found by clicking to covid19.ncdhhs.gov/dashboard.