Real estate in Bryan, Effingham GA booming as Kia comes to megasite
Stephen and Traci Donlon are ready to trade in harsh winters for long summer days.
The couple, and their daughter Sarah, are moving to Bryan County from Massachusetts at the end of June. “We find (that) once late October hits, you are not doing a lot outside until May,” said Traci Donlon. “It gets kind of depressing when you are stuck in the house.”
Donlon said it is surreal to think her family is moving hundreds of miles away from home. But renting gives her a peace of mind because if things don’t work out, they will have an easy exit.
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“We would have bought something if we had to but we want to have the option to come back home,” said Donlon. “I am still in the moment where I’m thinking, ‘what did we just do?’ But the idea of being able to bike ride and go on walks, and go to the beach is nice. We can’t wait to go to Tybee. It’s going to be different but I think it’s going to be a good kind of different for us.”
It is no secret Bryan and Effingham County are becoming hotbeds for families looking for affordable housing and better education, but with Kia Motors bringing their facility to the megasite in Bryan County even more people will be flocking to the counties looking to build a family and community.
In the first of a two-part series, the Savannah Morning News will look at why so many are flocking to the area, what their experience has been so far and what lies ahead for the counties that grapple with an overwhelming number of newcomers.
Effingham County continues to grow — whether they want it or not
Toni Hardigree has lived in Effingham County for 23 years where she raised her three children. Hardigree owns Platinum Properties in Rincon, a full-service real estate brokerage.
When she first moved to the area from California, she felt like she went back in time. It was a different lifestyle from the one she lived in the Golden State. She adjusted to the slower pace of living and is hopeful the county will manage the amount of growth coming in so she can continue to enjoy the small-town vibes.
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“Growth is going to happen,” said Hardigree. “It’s inevitable, but it’s how we manage it, from managing our roads to the traffic. It’s coming so we have to be ready for it. I think that is an important thing. Passing the TSPLOST funds to help with that was key. Just managing the growth in a positive way – if we can do that, I’m okay with it.”
Hardigree suggested developers should foot the bill for new roads and schools.
“In California, if a developer came in to develop a neighborhood, they would put up bonds for roads and schools. I think that would be really beneficial if somebody was coming into a neighborhood – that the builder would have some responsibility for that. I think that would be beneficial for us if that could be put into place. Developers come and clear the land for all these people to move into and then it is up to the county to figure out how they are going to catch up to that growth.”
Growth in Effingham County has caused a shortage of homes for realtors to sell. On average, there are 10 offers on any given property, according to Michelle Edwards, real estate agent for Sherman & Hemstreet Southern Georgia Homes, LLC.
“The inventory is not there,” said Edwards. “People do not waste time making an offer because they are afraid they are going to miss out, especially when there are deadlines due for the offer,” said Edwards. “I have some give up because they get frustrated. My best advice is to leverage your odds, have cash on hand and see what you can pay and what you are willing to pay.”
Folks moving to Effingham County have a slight advantage over Chatham County. Edwards said buyers can get 100% financing if approved with a USDA loan because the county is more rural than Savannah.
The average home under contract in Effingham County is $314,881 for a four bedroom, two bath home. Edwards said that price point is for resale homes. Some new construction homes have been put on hold because there is a shortage of materials such as windows and flooring products, according to Edwards.
She went on to say buyers have moved as far as California to Effingham County and a variety of things have contributed to them relocating.
“Some of the people that move here are looking at the school system and it is not as busy,” said Edwards. “We have people that are moving from bigger cities. They don’t want to be in the hustle and bustle but still want to be close enough to get where they need to go. I’ve had clients that are tired of being cold or have family in the area.”
What makes the homebuying process even more stressful is houses under $200,000 are going far above listing price. On top of that, buyers need a large amount of cash for the appraisal gap and more.
“When you get into a market like this, everything is competitive,” said Edwards. “People are forgoing due diligence periods for inspections and they are increasing the amount of earnest money they put down.”
Even Springfield has seen a slight increase in its population. Edwards credits their growth to downtown renovations that have made the tiny town more appealing. “Downtown Springfield has been transformed,” said Edwards. “You have options on places to eat during the day and in the evening.”
Because there are so many people looking at the same house, some buyers opt to live further in the county as opposed to the south end. “The south area was popular because of its close proximity to work, shops and Savannah,” said Edwards.
“Now, buyers have to take what they can get and are willing to live further into the northern end of the county. People used to want to live on the south end because people wanted to be closer to work, but people are taking what they can get.”
Bryan County was growing fast even before megasite, Kia Motors deal
Richmond Hill has begun to establish its own identity. What used to be a desirable town for some of the area’s wealthiest has blossomed into a suburb of middle-class families.
Real estate agent Jessica MacDonald said the area saw significant growth at the height of the pandemic, saying homeowners came to the realization they were unhappy with their surroundings.
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“It’s crazy because I think people got locked up when COVID-19 started and they realized they didn’t like where they lived,” said MacDonald. “Whether it be different views on politics in their state or the house they lived in, they realized they can buy so much more in the South.”
And the school system has been the driving force behind those moving into the area. Donlon said she was excited to live in Savannah due to its close proximity to Hilton Head, but was overwhelmed with the lack of freedom to move about within the school district.
“The way the south does its school districts is extremely different than the north,” said Donlon. “We have four public schools covering all the grades. You can choose whichever schools that are in the town. But in Savannah, you can’t choose like that.”
But after doing some research, she stumbled upon Richmond Hill. When their stats and academic success lined up with the school district back home, Donlon felt relieved.
“It was all luck that I found Richmond Hill,” said Donlon.
MacDonald went on to say military families in particular tend to suffer the most during the homebuying process because the VA loan does not cover every expense that comes with buying a home.
“There are over 2,000 military families in Richmond Hill,” said MacDonald. “There is this stigma that you can buy a home with no money down if you are in the military. What you need is earnest money, a down payment, and money for the appraisal gap. It’s insane. Your average military family cannot afford that. Even a $10,000 appraisal gap is a lot for them. It has everything to do with the financial aspect of it. People are having to bring more cash than they have before.”
The Donlon’s opted to rent due to lower prices and more options.
“We can’t escape the outrageous home prices that are happening right now,” said Donlon. “We met with a realtor who does sales and rentals. There were more rentals than homes for sale and the prices were so much lower. At that point, I panicked and realized we needed to find something quickly or we run the risk of not finding something.”
Carter Infinger, chairman for the Bryan County Commission, has lived in Bryan County for 25 years and recalled the days when he used to know everyone on his street.
“We are a coastal town,” said Infinger. “Our millage rate is good so taxes are low for the area. We have great schools and we are close to the ocean. People want to be here. Before, you could pass four or five cars and you knew them all. Now you pass about 2,000. They come to Savannah and then they look at what other communities are surrounding it. About 80% of our people drive into Savannah. The military brings a lot of people too.”
But some of the same folks that moved in recently are rolling their eyes at residents coming in behind them. What some newcomers thought was a hidden gem soon realized hundreds of people are looking to call Richmond Hill home.
“There are people that moved here six months ago and now they are saying I don’t like all of this growth,” said Infinger. “We can’t shut the gate right after you come in.”
Concerns of speeding and parents worried about overcrowding in schools in the coming years have put county commissioners in a bind.
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“The more people that are here, the more businesses and restaurants can come here,” said Infinger. “It’s kind of a fine line. Do you want good restaurants here or do you not want them? If you want them, growth has to happen.”
Legally, the county does not have much say as to what a builder can do. Infinger went on to say the county is in good hands and believes his team is equipped with experienced professionals who are prepared to handle the next wave of newcomers.
“I would like our community to stay small but if someone comes in and buys $2 or $3 million dollars worth of property and it is zoned for housing, we can’t legally stop them from building on it,” said Infinger.
“They met all the codes and ordinances. People don’t understand that. We have a unified development ordinance that has some strict guidelines for building houses in the community. We want to protect citizens that move here. The future of Bryan County is bright. We want to map out our future before it gets here. Our staff is smart and articulate. You hire good people and you let them do their job. They have come from a lot of places, so they know how to handle growth and development.”
Latrice Williams is a general assignment reporter covering Bryan and Effingham County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.