The Chapel Hill area of the Triangle includes some wonderful rural communities that have been extremely popular over the last 30 years or so as homeowners seeking a more rural lifestyle traveled 20-30 minutes outside of the Triangle where they could own some acreage and settle into country life. Because the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area is relatively small you don’t have too drive far to find a piece of rural heaven.
We used to call these areas “living in the country” but there is a more official name for them: the “exurbs.” According to Wikipedia:
Today’s exurbs are composed of small neighborhoods in otherwise bucolic areas, towns, and (comparatively) small cities. Some lie in the outer suburbs of an urbanized area, but a few miles of rural, wooded, or agricultural land separates many exurbs from the suburbs. Exurbs that originated independently of the major city to which many residents commute may feature some cultural institutions or universities of their own. Others, by contrast, consist almost exclusively of commuters and lack the historical and cultural traditions of more established cities.
Exurbs have been in the news lately
with articles like this one from the New York Times:
As a demographer, William Frey of the Brookings Institution, told The Times recently, exurbs were once the “cutting edge” of growth, but no more. “That growth has really come to a standstill,” he said, “and is maybe being given up for dead at this point.” His analysis of data found that the country’s outer suburbs grew by only 0.4 percent in the fiscal year ended in July, down from 1 percent the same period before. It peaked, in 2006, above 2 percent.
For generations, Americans have migrated ever outward from city centers, pulled by affordable housing to places where long commutes were possible because of cheap gasoline. The costs of such migration — in traffic congestion, environmental degradation and increasing addiction to fossil fuels — were played down or ignored.
Recent trends point to a correction, driven in part by the recession, which has made it harder for families to move. The Census Bureau also recently reported that America’s urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, faster than the nation’s overall growth rate of 9.7 percent. The exurban tide may be receding.
I can verify this idea that cheap gasoline made the exurbs possible. When gas prices first shot up in 2004 the market for homes in Chatham County and western Orange County dropped significantly despite the fact that elsewhere the housing boom was still raging unabated. Clients who previously were looking in these areas decided to buy homes closer to their work because of high gas prices.
Return to the cities
At the same time the idea of urban living and downtown condos began to take hold, resulting in a new wave of inner city development. According to USA Today:
The nation’s development patterns may be at a historic juncture as builders begin to reverse 60-year-old trends. They’re shifting from giant communities on wide-open “greenfields” to compact “infill” housing in already-developed urban settings.
The market slowdown has given builders time to assess sweeping demographic changes that are transforming the way Americans want to live.
Young Millennials and older Baby Boomers are rejecting traditional suburban lifestyles in favor of urban living and shorter commutes. Many want to live near city centers so they can walk to work, shops and restaurants or take public transportation. They also prefer smaller homes because they’re single or have no kids and don’t want to spend their free time maintaining their homes. …
The housing bust of the last five years hit hardest in subdivisions in remote suburbs, drying up financing for such development. At the same time, gas prices soared and so did environmental consciousness, giving consumers pause about living in distant suburbs away from services, jobs and entertainment.
We are seeing this in Durham where after 30 years of valiant efforts the downtown is finally revitalizing, with a farmer’s market, art galleries, trendy restaurants and downtown condos. Downtown Raleigh also achieved a measure of success in the condo boom of the mid 2000s but was hurt harder during the housing crash because of an oversupply of downtown housing.
What next for rural housing?
It’s difficult to imagine that gas prices will drop, so unless the dream of public transportation in the Triangle becomes a reality the market for homes in the exurbs is likely to continue to be a challenge. There will always be people (like me) that crave the peace and solitude of wooded seclusion and who will be willing to drive a bit more and pay a bit more for that privilege. The lower property taxes of the rural areas offsets the higher gas costs anyway.
But as the market for rural housing shrinks, as long as the supply continues to expand with new developments home prices in these areas will languish and expectations of home sellers will need to comply with the new market realities.