Why Charleston Ain’t Cheap

Down here at The Real Estate Studio at 214 King St, we get a great mix of visitors to Charleston coming in our door.  Over the past year, when conversations are inevitably struck up about real estate in Charleston, I have noted that 50% of the interested folks are WAY off in their estimates of what Charleston real estate costs.  A recent example…a woman from Canada came in and said her friend told her that she could get waterfront property downtown for under $200,000.  (cue gaffaws from the locals).  We wish!!  Now, I don’t fault her, or anyone else, for not knowing the costs – after all, they don’t live here and we do.  But this seems like a golden opportunity to explain, from my perspective, WHY Charleston real estate costs so much compared to the rest of the Southeast.

1. It must be something in the water – No matter where you are in the country, if you are on the water, your prices are going to be significantly higher because there is only so much coastline, right?

2. More on Scarcity and Geography….because Charleston is on the coast, we only have 180 degrees in which to grow out, unlike Charlotte or Atlanta, which have 360 degrees of building possibility.  This geographical growth-stunter works well for the city, and makes us locals consider driving more than 20 miles REALLY FAR AWAY.

3. Uniqueness – beach properties aside, Downtown Charleston boasts more preserved historic properties than any other city in the country, maybe even the world.  I did actually read that somewhere, but googling Charleston Historic Properties only gets me pages upon pages of Real Estate.  Drat my industry!   So why is this significant?  Because you can’t build any more of them and you can’t take down the existing ones.  Again, Scarcity.

4. Rules, Rules and More Rules – let’s take Downtown Charleston – one would think, if you can’t build out you can build up like NYC or Myrtle Beach?  Not so.  Nothing in this Holy City can be taller than a church steeple.  Ever.  Unless of course you are in a specific zone, or you put up your building before the rule was enacted or you have a lot of pull with the City.  The Board of Architectural Review requires you go through a lengthy process to do ANYTHING to a home or building.  Believe me, I know.  I had to beg out of a ticket because I was painting my white gate WHITE, without a permit.  Now we locals moan and grumble about this seemingly ridiculous, profiteering rule, BUT, deep down, we know it is what keeps our city beautiful and the values high.

5. We love trees – Again with the rules…the Charleston area has a rule that prevents anyone from cutting down a tree that is more than 10 inches in diameter without explicit permission.  For the most part, this ordinance prevents developers from clearing vast swaths of land then planting a few teeny tiny new trees a la the Atlanta Suburbs.  We curb our own development.

6. We are Type A, or Virgos, or something – We PLAN.  Across all three counties of the metro-area, much planning is going on.  And being debated, and revamped, and planned again.  Put out to the public and torn apart and thrown back at the drawing board.  Nothing ever gets done without the input of the masses and while it certainly can be agonizingly slow, the result is generally sweet.

7. We are oh-so-chic and trendy – Sweeping the nation is the trend toward urban living.  Americans have gone full circle.  Before WWII most of us lived in cities, then we all went out to the Suburbs and the cities suffered, now we are all coming back.  It has to do with gas prices, easier lifestyles, craving more culture than the miles upon miles of Wendy’s, TJ Applebees, Target, Wendy’s, TJ Applebees, Target…Whatever the reason, Charleston has got a great combination of all of that.  Even our new developments are mixed-used semi-urban, pedestrian and bike-friendly oases.

7. Speculators – yeah, we had our share.  They are gone now.  No more money.

So I could list 10 more reasons why Charleston Ain’t Cheap and invite others to contribute theirs – but you get the gist.  Certainly, you can find homes under $250,000 in the suburbs.  There is something for everyone here.  But if you want to live on the water, or in an historic home walking distance to everything – expect to pay the price.  Most of the time, it is well worth it.  These are the homes we love, and they help make up the rich and beautiful fabric that is our Beloved Lowcountry.

For more information, visit our friends at the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Board of Architectural Review, and the Coastal Conservation League.  They are three of many, many organizations committed to protecting and preserving Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry.

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