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No one's using the word "boom" yet, but those who closely watch the Swannanoa Valley real estate scene are tossing out adjectives like "dramatic," even "hot," to describe home sales and rentals for the first three months of 2015.

In fact, some are saying the real estate scene is looking better than it has in years - good news for sellers but not so great for buyers, since a "hot" market drives up prices.

"We're seeing more and more requests" for housing info, Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob McMurray said. "That includes newcomers ... from all over. They're giving testimony to the weather - it's too hot in Florida, or it's too cold in the north."

M. Wendell Begley, president and CEO of Black Mountain Savings Bank, said the bank has experienced a "dramatic increase" in the number of mortgage applications recently. "As of (the week of April 5-11)," he said, "more have been filed than in all of last year - and that's applications, not just queries." Begley also said he believed the number of building permits applied for in town is up.

Chip Craig, owner/founder of GreyBeard Realty, closely watches every angle of real estate trends in Black Mountain and Buncombe County. He said that for the first three months of 2015, there was a 63 percent jump in the number of homes sold, when compared to the same three months in 2014 (those stats apply to all transactions, not just GreyBeard's). The volume sold January-March 2014 was just over $6.5 million. During that period this year, more than $11.2 million sold.

"The first word that comes to mind is 'hot' for maybe the past six months, maybe longer," said J. Richard Hudson III, broker/agent at Black Mountain Insurance & Realty. "Anything priced at $250,000 or lower is moving. There will be two to three offers in one to two days." A lot of sales are cash deals, Hudson said, but not all are investment-type purchases. "In fact, most are folks wanting to live here," he said, "not just buy and rent the property out."

That's bittersweet news of sorts for both Hudson and Craig, since their agencies handle rentals as well as sales. GreyBeard manages about a 165 long-term rentals, "and... (the) long-term market is ridiculously tight," Craig said. "We have close to zero vacancy, and things rent almost immediately. So demand is way exceeding supply." Hudson concurred, and added that "rentals go almost as fast as they come in."

Many new transplants are looking to rent, not buy, "and that's proving difficult," McMurray said - even though rents have increased from $700-$800 per month a few years ago to about $1,200 and up now. With so few rentals to be had in Black Mountain, people are looking in places like Old Fort, McMurray said.

A recently approved development at the end of Byrd Road, just west of Lake Tomahawk, may help. On April 13, the town approved the Roberts' Farm Master Plan and Development Agreement, which, when first presented to the town planning board in August 2009, called for 51 single-family homes, 51 townhomes and 142 condominiums, most of which would be categorized as "affordable housing." Its single and multi-unit residences will cover almost 35 acres.

The number of building permits have tripled in the last 15 years, Begley said. "Normally, we have maybe three or four construction loans going at the same time. Right now, we have 10 to 12 on our books," he said. And they're to mostly local contractors, he said, indicating that the local economy is riding the upward trend of the real estate market.

Yet, the robust number of permits and loans seem to contradict another facet of life in Black Mountain. "There's very little land in Black Mountain proper that's buildable," Begley said. Most larger undeveloped parcels are owned by five Christian assemblies. That land has been set aside for conservation "in perpetuity," Begley said. "Plus, there are some 17,000 acres around the watershed that are protected," he said.

Craig is surprised that the land market isn't stronger right now, "since home inventories are down and all indications are (of) a tightening (of the) house market," he said. "I keep waiting for land to take off and it hasn't."

So, where's everyone coming from. And why?

Craig said GreyBeard's website has had 125,000 visitors during the first quarter, up 49 percent over 2014. Inquiries from inside North Carolina are up 55 percent, while those from Florida are up 48 percent. And there has been a lot from Tennessee this year.

The average age of new borrowers at Black Mountain Savings Bank is about 48, a drop from 58 years old last year, Begley said. Many of the younger immigrants are buying here and commuting to Asheville to work, McMurray said. Many live in the Swannanoa Valley and work from home, working in industries that allow them to live anywhere that there's a good Internet connection.

All, including retirees that the area continues to attract, are drawn to Black Mountain's quality of life, Begley said. But younger people especially appreciate its schools, he said.

"Owen (High) consistently scores higher academically, compared to the other five school districts in Buncombe County," he said. New residents also feel a sense of ownership. "They feel welcome, and they quickly learn much of what the Swannanoa Valley has to offer," Begley said. That's due in large part to the Swannanoa Valley Museum and Black Mountain Center for the Arts and their many programs, especially hiking, he said.

Many move here because they remember how much they loved the area during summer camp. Then there are events such as the Mount Mitchell Marathon.

"A good number of participants bring their families back," Begley said. "They go to near the top of the course, look back, see all the Valley has to offer, and they're hooked."

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