Sanford’s once-struggling housing market is on the rise again as more and more buyers come here for location, new ‘amenities,’ lower costs and ‘flipping’ potential
By Billy Liggett | Photography by Brooke Wolfe Rouse
Stepping inside this old single-story brick home on Spring Lane — with its kitchen floor stripped to the base boards and its bright red 60s-era floral patterned wallpaper … walls torn down to the beams and bathrooms in need of several modern amenities — and most of us would see a nightmare.
Ashley Davenport sees “solid bones.” Functionality. Potential.
She sees the makings of a dream home.
Davenport is founder of Sweet Southern Home & Design in Sanford, and for the past two years, she’s been in the house-flipping business — taking older, mostly forgotten houses and transforming them into HGTV-worthy homes with many of the creature comforts important to today’s discriminating buyers. Her projects are bought at prices considered low for their surrounding neighborhoods and resold at prices more in line with the going rates of newer homes in the area.
A former marketing professional in the pharmaceutical business, Davenport has picked the right time to get into this game. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, house flipping has reached popularity levels not seen since 2006 — the peak of the U.S. housing boom before the industry came crashing down to Earth later that year and in 2007. Nearly 11 percent of the homes sold in the U.S. last year were flips (defined as having been owned for less than two years), and flippers today are coming away with much larger profit margins — they’re nearly twice as profitable as they were 13 years ago.
But the other reason Davenport’s timing is impeccable — Sanford is hot. And it’s not just the real estate market. More retail is coming in, new restaurants are being built, more schools are being added, and there’s just a better overall “vibe” to the city than even four or five years ago. Davenport’s family is new to Sanford (her husband’s a native, but they didn’t plant roots here until three years ago), and she says the area is becoming more attractive to those who want quick access to the Triangle, but aren’t keen on paying (much) more to live there.
“When we moved here, if you would have told me that in three years, Sanford would be home to two new breweries, a splash park for the kids, a Starbucks and Hobby Lobby, bars you can hang out at downtown … I would have said you’re crazy,” Davenport says, standing next to a kitchen sink set down in the living room of the Spring Lane project. “You go to Durham or Pittsboro or Apex, and you see their downtown areas are being revitalized, and there’s this eclectic, hipster feel to them. Sanford’s getting there, too … I think people are starting to really appreciate this city and what it has to offer. And we’re becoming an attractive place to live.”
THE PLACE TO BUY
Flipped houses are doing really well in Sanford. In fact, it’s considered the best place to flip.
According to a recent article in the Triangle Business Journal — using numbers obtained from Attom Data Solutions — the 27330 area code led North Carolina in terms of percentage of profit for flipped homes (this data defined a “flip” as a home owned for one year or less). The 30 homes in Sanford sampled for the study showed a return on investment of a whopping 113 percent locally.
The median purchase price of those homes was considerably low — about $53,500 on average — and were sold for an average of $113,750. The study didn’t take into account money put into refurbishing or additions to these homes, and the prices suggest these homes aren’t necessarily the same high-level flips like Davenport and her business are performing.
John Ramsperger, owner of Sanford Real Estate, says many of these less expensive homes are being snatched up by investors who don’t need financing. While many are investing in slight improvements to the homes before reselling them, they’re by no means putting in an effort on par with Davenport and a handful of other full-time flippers in the area.
“You try to do this in Wake County right now, and you’re not going to get near as much of a return,” Ramsperger says. “So these people are coming to Lee County — Sanford, Broadway, Carolina Trace — and they’re finding great deals and buying them left and right. They’re smarter than most of us living here who didn’t realize the equity these homes had.”
When the country’s housing bubble burst with real estate reaching record lows in 2012, Lee County was hit harder than most areas, according to Ramsperger. In a county that relied (and relies) heavily on manufacturing jobs, when the cost of labor went up, many lost their jobs, consumer confidence went down locally, and houses simply weren’t moving.
Sanford’s neighbors to the north in Wake and Chatham counties recovered more quickly, but around 2015, Ramsperger says the housing market up there hit a “minor speed bump,” and people began looking at Lee County, where home prices were still low and the price per square foot was a much better deal.
“People were amazed at what they could get here for $150,000, $200,000 and $225,000,” he says. “Now we’re in 2019, and we’ve had two to three years of good sales. I’d say Lee County has a balanced market — it’s both a good market for buyers and sellers. Houses below $200,000 are going fast … barely staying on the market for a week. We’re seeing multiple bids and all-out bidding wars on houses now.
“Sanford’s not a secret anymore. Homes are selling for more now, so while it’s nice that we’re leading the state in flipped housing profit percentages, you’re not going to see that going forward. Recent appraisals are justifying higher prices.”
Harnett County’s not a secret anymore, either, says Ann Milton, owner of Ann Milton Realty in Fuquay-Varina. Milton’s agency sells a lot of homes in and around Lillington (her new billboards can be found along U.S. 421 between the town and Sanford), and she says the northern part of the county is really taking off.
“Many of our buyers are moving to this area from out of state, but we also see an increase in the number of folks venturing beyond Raleigh due to affordability,” she says.
Milton says home values in her areas are increasing, in most areas by as much as 4 percent. She says sellers are at an advantage in today’s market because many have the luxury of waiting to identify their next property to purchase before putting their home on the market (as homes are going fast). “It’s creating an interesting trend in the marketplace,” she says.
Last decade’s military Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) — which brought an influx of jobs and, therefore, families to Fort Bragg — was expected to have a big impact on Lee and Harnett counties, but the timing of it (in conjunction with the housing bubble) couldn’t have been worse. Still, Milton says, BRAC did create a “mini-town” off of N.C. 87, about a half hour south of Sanford in the Spout Springs community.
“So it definitely changed the landscape of Harnett County and had a huge impact on our emergency services and schools,” she says. “But it didn’t have quite the ‘boom” they expected, and for a long time, the southwest portion of the county was overbuilt, leaving inventory sitting longer than desired. I think that’s balanced out now, and we are seeing more new construction [north of Fort Bragg] up toward Sanford. Sanford’s growth has made it a go-to for many families in Harnett County, because of the ease of entry and traffic compared to Cumberland or Wake counties.”
Local builder Brad D. Cummings, owner of Lillington-based Brad D. Cummings Construction Co. Inc., says that while flipped homes and similar revitalization projects are doing well in Sanford, the overall housing market in Lee, Harnett, Chatham and Moore counties is strong — and that goes for the construction of new homes as well.
“We have current projects going and several coming up — all custom homes,” Cummings says. “Jobs and incomes are stable, interest rates are at near-record lows, and material prices are on a downward trend. Those are all perfect conditions for the housing market.
“Plus, labor is up, and their continues to be a shortage of qualified trades and laborers. So the jobs are here, too.”
THE PLACE TO BE
John Ramsperger isn’t from Sanford — he was born and raised in Rochester, New York — but he’s been here long enough (20 years) to the see the ups and downs, the good times and the bad times, of the city he calls home. The last four or five years, he says, have brought more change than the previous 15 years combined.
Sanford, he says, has been revitalized.
“I’ll be sitting next to people I’ve never met before at a food truck at Hugger Mugger [downtown Sanford’s brewery], and I’ll learn that they’ve come here from Durham or Apex. Sometimes Raleigh,” Ramsperger says. “And I’m not used to that. I’m not used to the idea that people are coming down here to take in what we have to offer. I’ve always known a Sanford where we travel to Raleigh or south to Southern Pines, spend $60 and then come home. That’s becoming less and less the case today.”
All around Lee County, there are signs of growth. The south side’s retail growth began approximately 12 years ago with the addition of a new WalMart, and there’s no end in site for new businesses where N.C. 87, U.S. 421 and South Horner Boulevard meet (Wilkinson, one of Sanford’s largest and most established car dealerships, announced last month its leaving its location on U.S. 1 for this prime spot).
A bit further up Horner Boulevard — where a tornado cut a devastating path, destroying several buildings and businesses only eight years ago — the tracts of land are nearly full with shopping centers, restaurants, new grocery stores and car washes.
The Tramway area is awaiting a new “smart highway” at U.S. 1 and Tramway Road — construction that should “open new lanes,” so to speak, for more retail and commercial construction.
And downtown Sanford, thanks to a 2013 bond referendum that led to a complete streetscape overhaul and other improvements, continues to trend upward with new bars, restaurants, shops and other businesses, all while highlighting the city’s growing arts scene and its murals initiative.
If a lack of those amenities was the reason families were willing to pay more to live elsewhere, Sanford keeps chipping away at that reason.
“And 20 years ago, they may have thought 40 miles to Raleigh or 20 miles to Apex was too far away,” Ramsperger adds. “But roads are better now. Cars are better now. Gas is cheap. Twenty miles today is closer than 20 miles 20 years ago. The moral of the story is we’re becoming viable — in both quality of life and distance. Sanford is on the map.”
And not just for home buyers, says Steve Malloy of Adcock & Associates Real Estate and Auction in Sanford.
“Much like the families moving here who don’t mind the commute to Raleigh,” Malloy says, “you’re seeing commercial and industrial buyers and tenants from that area who are deciding it’s not such a bad drive to come to Lee County daily, too.”
Before Ashley Davenport moved to Sanford, she had a mental checklist of the things she felt the city she lived in should have (she referred to it as “basic girl stuff”). Tops on the list was a Target, and No. 2 was a Starbucks. These weren’t dealbreakers, per se — neighborhoods, church, friends and family played a bigger role in the ultimate decision — but these quality-of-life wishes were still important.
Target may still be a pipe dream, but the Starbucks is here. For Davenport, that’s a good start.
“I think the people who’ve lived here their whole lives appreciate it, too, but it’s the people who are moving here with a fresh perspective who are really talking about Sanford and seeing its potential,” she says. “It’s a great location. It’s growing. And yet, it still has that small-town feel. They aren’t putting loopty-loops at ever intersection and tearing down a bunch of trees for new shopping centers.
“And the people here seem to care. Drive through the historic district, and more and more families are working on their homes. And while some of them might be doing it for a flip, many of them are choosing to stay.”
THE PLACE TO STAY
Davenport and her husband moved to Sanford in 2016 from Holly Springs, a town much further along in its housing boom and a town set to become the “next Cary or Apex” thanks to its location and proximity to the recently built toll road set to extend that way in the coming years.
Holly Springs, she says, was becoming a town where they “just knocked down perfectly nice forests and put up communities of track homes.”
“They’re nice, but they just somewhat lose their personality,” she says. “Your house ends up looking like your friend Joe’s house down the street.”
Sanford was part of Davenport’s region in her previous marketing position, so that coupled with her husband growing up here meant she became familiar with the lay of the land and the various neighborhoods. She fell in love with communities like the Rosemount-McIver Historic District and Westlake Valley in West Sanford. “Cute homes with great established neighborhoods,” she says. “Homes with lots of great character.”
Her decision to go full-time into interior design and house flipping began with a white brick home on Chisholm Street in the historic district. Davenport doesn’t claim to be a professional designer, and by no means is she an architect, so she admits that first home was a challenge.
But she had a plan. Her first step on all of her homes is to take anything not up to code and bring it up to date. Next is a deep clean. Then, she studies how to make the home functional.
“Thanks to HGTV, everybody is knocking out walls and going with open concepts,” she says. “I’ve already knocked down a lot of walls.”
She hires professionals for HVAC work, electric and roofing needs. But for the most part, it’s all her. And much to her surprise, that first home on Chisholm sold before it ever officially went on the market. The easy sell was both a blessing and a curse for Davenport — it gave her the confidence that she could do this, but it also set up high expectations for future homes.
Her second project — a single story brick home on a large corner lot on Brookwood Trail in west Sanford — was her most ambitious. So many walls were removed, she had to have engineered wood beams installed. She turned the two-car garage into a fourth bedroom — a true master bedroom with large bathroom and walk-in shower and closets. She completely refinished the hardwood floors. And on the kitchen, she “went big” with quartz countertops and enough cabinets to store the equipment needed for a cooking show.
“You see this in Raleigh homes, and the people who are leaving Raleigh and looking for homes in this area — these items are what they’re looking for in a home,” Davenport says.
That house (it’s featured on the cover of this print edition of The Rant Monthly) went on the market in April and remains unsold. In 2012, it was listed at $125,000, according to Zillow, and today Davenport is asking for $290,000.
The two-story, 2,500-square-foot home on Lynwood Circle went on the market in May and is currently listed on Zillow at $298,000. Where the Brookwood home took approximately 10 months to complete, the Lynwood home was finished in about four months. It’s located on a cul-de-sac, is surrounded by trees and has a large front yard — its biggest “fixes” were the kitchen and sunroom (pictured in this publication) and the master bedroom, which now has a walk-in shower that (upon our estimates) can fit about 12 people.
She’s just begun with the project on Spring Lane, and when that’s done … it’s on to the next one. Davenport is dug in, and Sanford’s hot real estate market has helped make her entrepreneurial dream a reality.
“Interior design has always been a passion of mine, but this has become a business,” she says. “And I’m able to do this because there’s so much potential in Sanford. It’s a great spot, a great community and it has great people. Sure, it’s not perfect, but every city has its flaws. When I hear people ‘dog’ this city, I ask them what they’re doing to make it better.
“If I can improve one house at a time, I feel like I’m doing my part to help make Sanford better … make it a better place to live. How great would it be if more and more people worked to improve Sanford one house at a time? This city can only go up, and if I can help in any way, I want to be a part of it.”