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Columbus-area market bucks national trend

Time was, folks flocked to build and buy the antebellum mansions that fill Columbus’ central area. Farmers of the vast prairie lands across the Tombigbee River, west, north and south of the venerable town, made fortunes that they invested in the palatial homes on the river’s bluff.
They farmed the distant plantations but the ostentatious homes were the place to live.

Today, those homes are still desirable to some buyers, but it takes a special love — and plenty of money for renovations and just plain maintenance — to justify owning one.

“You can get top dollar for a renovated antebellum home,” said Barbara Pope, broker-owner of Prudential Southern Family & Associates Realty in Columbus. “And you can get good money for one not renovated but with a good structure.”

That said, Pope pointed out that the real estate market in Columbus and Lowndes County is about far more than old homes. Most buyers are looking for much newer dwellings, but whether they find them or not is one area of concern for Pope and her colleagues.

“We can’t build them fast enough,” Pope said, pointing out that her firm completed a 14-house development last year outside the city limits, in the county. Those homes sold quickly; a dozen of them went to military personnel attached to Columbus Air Force Base (CAFB).

“We’ve always enjoyed the Columbus Air Force Base turnover,” said Erma Sanders, broker-owner of Realty Services in the city.

Since World War II the flight-training base has been a solid source of homebuyers and sellers in the Columbus area as airmen and officers are transferred in and out of CAFB. That continues, though with base closures rolling across the nation and overseas since the mid-1990s, the Columbus base has so far managed to miss the closure bullet.

Sanders said that 71 homes priced at $150,000 or higher have sold in the “four most popular areas” since October 1, 2006. Those homes stayed on the market from 11 to 100 days; new houses built on speculation, Sanders noted, have lingered longer on the market than owner-occupied dwellings.

The hot four areas are Caledonia in northern Lowndes County, New Hope in the eastern part of the county, western Lowndes County along U.S. 82 and North Columbus itself.

“Columbus is bucking the national trend according to the sob stories I’ve heard from other markets of the country,” Sanders related.

Indeed, real estate in California, the Northeast and various other U.S. locales has suffered drastically decreased sales. Even just 70 miles up the road in Tupelo-Lee County, real estate sales in August and September of 2006 dropped by nearly half compared to the same time period in 2005.

Aside from the airbase, several plant expansions and a handful of new industries locating in the county have helped propel the real estate market in Lowndes County. Expansion of American Eurocopter, manufacturer of civilian and military helicopters and construction of the new SeverCorr steel mill have both fueled strong home sales.

“The market since September has been on fire,” said Sanders. She added that houses are generally commanding their listed sales prices, with few reductions necessary to move them.
Pope said houses in the $175,000 to $250,000 range are the bestsellers in the area. When SeverCorr executives were transferring into the area last year, the main movers were houses priced higher. As the mill workers and their supervisors are employed, lower-priced homes are becoming more in demand.

“SeverCorr has been a plus for us,” said Lois Laird, executive officer of the Golden Triangle Association of Realtors. She reported that 1,054 properties were sold in the four-county area (Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee) during 2005; 1,252 were sold during 2006.

Laird said that the 200 Realtor members in her association are closely watching House Bill 1420, proposed legislation that would add an impact fee to almost every residential development in the state. The collected funds would be earmarked for local school districts.

“We consider impact fees anti-business,” Laird explained.
But that legislation would likely have minimal effect on the Columbus market, if it continues its current momentum.
Pope said Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle purchased the hospital facility and grounds it has leased from Lowndes County since the early 1990s. Planned expansions and improvements promise an influx of medical personnel and administrators, most of whom are usually in the market for a home after arrival.

If there is a dark spot in the Columbus real estate market, it’s what Pope calls a shortage of homes in the “affordable” range, those priced $70,000-$120,000.

“Buyers are looking for them. We could sell them with interest rates like they are and if we had them,” said Pope.

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