Jonathan Osman points to a one-story, brick house in Camp Greene, a neighborhood just west of Uptown and off Wilkinson Boulevard. A little more than a decade ago, the home sold for $38,500. Now, it’s listed by another Realtor for $369,000.
Osman shakes his head, then pulls up a nearby listing on Morton Street: $335,000 for a similar house, one-story, brick, renovated.
“I get it, it’s close to Uptown,” he says. “But two-bedroom, one-bathroom?”
Osman, 38, is closing in on his 13th year selling houses in Charlotte, and the market’s dramatic changes still surprise him. He was here to see the pre-2008 bubble inflate, then pop. In the years immediately following the economy’s crash, he specialized in distressed sales that littered the city.
For the past few years, though, the swings have been replaced by a numbing sameness, even as the city changes in ways that were unimaginable in the wake of the Great Recession a decade ago.
“Every month you could say the same thing,” Osman says. “Supply is low, buyers are frustrated. Copy, paste.”
As the seemingly endless summer heat stretches into October, Osman drives through the historically black neighborhoods along Wilkinson. In years past he sold houses in foreclosure or so deep underwater that banks and homeowners were desperate to unload.
Now, the neighborhoods are in a frenzy. Newly built homes, replacing the modest brick homes, are listed for almost a half-million dollars. On some blocks, every third or fourth house is under renovation, front yards torn up and belching red earth as workers unload pallets of new stainless steel appliances and paint the brick a trendy battleship grey.
Change is written in bold letters: on the sign of the upscale doggie daycare he just passed on Tuckaseegee Road, on the “For Sale,” “Coming Soon,” and “Too Late!” signs sprouting across the neighborhood.
Driving past a panhandler and someone sleeping on a cardboard mattress under the I-277 overpass on Morehead Street, Osman thinks about the long-term renters and owners, mostly black, who once almost entirely made up neighborhoods like Seversville, Biddleville, Smallwood.
“Where did you put those people?” he says.
As 2019 draws to a close, Charlotte’s real estate boom continues, with prices marching ever-higher and the forces of gentrification, redevelopment, and sprawl reshaping vast swaths of the city.
In September, the average sale price for the Charlotte region jumped almost 7 percent from a year ago, topping $300,000, according to data from the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association. Within city limits, the average price spiked even more, climbing almost 10 percent to more than $324,000.
Driving through Charlotte, Osman sees that story reflected in his own business. Ticking through his old sales, he notes a townhouse near SouthPark he sold in 2012 for $225,000. It sold two years ago for $395,000 — close to double. A Steele Creek house he unloaded in a distressed sale in 2011 for $192,500 is on the market for $330,000.
The prices he recalls from five or six years ago sound almost quaint now, like your mother’s stories of buying a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries for 15 cents back in the 1950s.
But as strong as the real estate market looks on the surface, a mass of contradictions and countercurrents swirl beneath.
Inventory remains near historic lows, and homeowners are reluctant to put their houses up for sale in what should be a bonanza of a buyers’ market. And developers aren’t building fast enough to keep up with demand.
The supply of homes for sale plunged 19 percent in September. There’s just over two months of inventory on the market, which means if people stopped listing houses, the region would be sold out in about nine weeks.
Real estate agents certainly wouldn’t trade this for the aftermath of the Great Recession. Memories are still too fresh: unsold luxury condos, waves of foreclosures consuming neighborhoods, “zombie” subdivisions where construction stopped dead.
But from behind the wheel of Osman’s Jeep, the Charlotte market in 2019 doesn’t look like paradise, either. He has more competition than ever, with about 14,500 Realtors who now subscribe to the local listing service, called Canopy MLS. That’s up from about 8,400 in 2014.
“Every third person is a real estate agent,” Osman jokes.
Meanwhile, companies like Opendoor and Zillow have moved into Charlotte, offering sellers cash deals, without the inconvenience of showing a house or the uncertainties of contingent offers.
And Wall Street-backed companies like Tricon and American Homes 4 Rent have bought thousands of houses across Charlotte, mostly in the entry-level price range — exactly where inventory is the shortest — and turned them into rental properties.
This year, Osman is on track to sell about 28 houses, roughly the same number he sold last year. He estimates his earnings will be similar, too.
“The goal is always to hit six figures,” Osman says of the income he’s hoping to make. He knows sales will be slower as winter approaches, though Charlotte doesn’t see the deep freezes that lock up real estate markets in the Midwest and Northeast.
For Osman, it’s already time to look to the spring.
The expense of getting his next crop of houses prepared for sale isn’t insignificant: $1,000 to $2,000, Osman says, for 3-D home tours, photos, and staging. Still, new opportunities are scattered around the city.
“People are just lining up over here,” he says, pointing to a house in Windsor Park off Central Avenue, where laborers are out doing the gut-it-and-paint-the-brick-gray routine on what seems like every third house. “It’s the next boom.”
But lurking behind every sale, every listing, every hopeful Zillow search, is the question: When’s the next recession coming — and will it be as bad as last time?
At the wheel of his Jeep, Osman shrugs, then throws up his hands.
“You can’t stay high forever,” Osman says.
Most real estate agents agree on three things: They can’t predict when the next recession will be. But it will come, sooner or later. And it probably won’t be as terrible as the Great Recession.
John Kindbom, president-elect of the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association and regional vice president of Allen Tate Realtors, said today’s market is based more on fundamentals and less on speculation.
“There were a lot of goofy things going on in that time period,” Kindbom says of the local market in 2008 and 2009. “The real estate industry, builders, realtors, lenders. We were all part of the problem.
“A lot of people saw it, but they were making money.”
Real estate agents don’t see the same kinds of shenanigans that proliferated in the pre-recession bubble days.
Brandon Lawn, a Realtor at Cottingham Chalk who specializes in multimillion-dollar properties, says lending standards have tightened. The “no-doc” loans that banks made without supporting documentation — resulting in millions of foreclosures — haven’t come back.
Ten years ago, you could get a loan based on how much you said you earned and buy a $2 million house, Lawn says.
“Now, it’s full-documentation. They’re going to verify everything,” he says.
So just how much longer can Charlotte’s real estate market stay locked in the low-supply, high-demand, high-price vortex?
Kindbom, like other agents, can’t give an exact answer, but he’s sure forces will balance each other — supply will catch up, or demand will slacken.
“This is a cycle,” he says. “They’re all different, but they’re all the same.”
But real estate cycles are notoriously hard to predict. With a nationwide housing crash months away, an April 2008 Charlotte magazine article tried to forecast where the city’s real estate market was headed.
“So the million-dollar question is this: Is Charlotte booming or busting? Turns out, it’s neither,” the story concluded. “As the national real estate market deflates, Charlotte looks to be holding its own.”
If Charlotte didn’t want to see that crash coming, what’s the chance we’ll see the next one headed our way?
From the subdivisions marching across what were once far-off fields in Steele Creek, Fort Mill, and Kannapolis, to the renovate-it-or-tear-it-down mania sweeping in-town neighborhoods, the next crash is nowhere to be found.
In the year since he bought his Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jonathan Osman has covered about 23,000 miles, driving from showing to showing, taking pictures of new listings and meeting potential clients.
Like almost all the other 16 vehicles he’s owned, he bought the SUV used, because he knows how much mileage he’ll be racking up.
The mileage is part of the grind and hustle of the job. So is the expectation of a nice car to meet your clients. Mixed in with that are the mundane details of trying to sell homes that most of us can conveniently ignore.
There are the garden-variety hiccups: loans that don’t get approved, sellers who think their house is worth more than he knows it will fetch, buyers who want to pay $350,000 and live in a four-bedroom, close-in house zoned for a great school. Then there are the more exotic problems: Osman once had to replace some of his for-sale signs because they were casualties of a police chase.
On this October Saturday, his phone rings — a client has left some trash in the basement, and the buyer isn’t happy. In diplomatic tones, Osman smooths it all over.
Aside from the usual aggravations, Osman faces stiffer competition: the influx of real estate agents, the tech-investor-fueled companies muscling into the city to buy homes, and the overall pressure of the market.
Kindbom, the Realtor association president, acknowledges that real estate agents like Osman confront new challenges. But he says the industry still offers plenty of opportunities for dedicated professionals.
“There are a ton more Realtors out there than there ever were before, but a lot of them are licensees in name only,” he says. “The full-time practitioners are going to be fine.”
Zillow Offers launched in December in Charlotte. Trent Corbin, a Realtor and CEO of Redbud Group, is representing the company in all its transactions. The company is one of several so-called “iBuyers” promising fast, all-cash offers to sellers. The companies spruce up and resell the houses themselves.
“For us, that means a lot more listings,” Corbin says.
Despite the proliferation of new technology — first Zillow’s online listings, then companies like Knock.com, Offerpad, and Zillow stepping in to buy and sell houses directly — real estate remains resistant to Silicon Valley’s disruptive forces. It’s still an intensely local industry driven by face-to-face interactions, with real estate agents at the center of it all.
But Corbin says he expects preferences, especially among Millennial buyers (who are now approaching 40), will force changes.
“We want to order a pizza and know every step of the way where it is,” he says. “We want Uber to be there in four minutes … People want that transparency and convenience in their real estate transaction, and historically it hasn’t been there.”
Osman starts the second Saturday in October as he does most weekends: Breakfast at a diner off Arrowood Road with his girlfriend and son. Then it’s off to appointments with clients and showings.
Weekends are busy in real estate, but Osman reserves part of his Sundays in the fall and winter for his first love: the Washington Redskins. Gameday, he hosts an hour of local radio talking about the team on WGNC, FM 101.1, and hosts a Redskins watch party each week at Whisky River in the EpiCentre.
Osman has been selling real estate since he was 23. He moved to Charlotte in 2006 from the Washington, D.C. suburbs, after he and his wife at the time decided to relocate to be closer to her family.
The years right before the bust might seem like an inauspicious time for a Realtor to move into a new market. But Osman found a niche specializing in distressed property sales as the real estate market sank deeper into recession — complicated and messy business few other agents wanted, he says — and taught blogging and social media tactics to other real estate agents at conferences. Four years ago, he split from Keller Williams and set up his own company, Tryon Realty Partners.
The market was heating up then, but it wasn’t what it is now.
“You had more inventory,” Osman says. “Prices were more stable.” He recalls talking with prospective clients who hesitated and decided not to buy. “Looking back, they probably all wish they had.”
Some numbers put the change in perspective.
September 2014: There were just over 15,000 houses for sale in the Charlotte region, an estimated five months worth of inventory. The average house sold for $228,085, and sat on the market for 129 days from listing to closing.
September 2019: There were 9,272 houses on the market, a scant 2.2 months worth of inventory. The average house sold for just over $300,000, and spent 90 days on the market from listing to closing.
Buyers and sellers can feel the difference, even if they don’t know those numbers. It’s seeing a home on Sunday, waffling on Monday, and learning it sold on Tuesday. It’s looking at a house in Madison Park that sold in 2016 for $220,000 now listed for almost $630,000. It’s constant house-flipping ads on the radio, promising seminars that teach you how to make money without spending your own.
The scarcity of homes for sale and fast-rising prices have created a self-reinforcing cycle, real estate agents say. People are reluctant to list their houses because once they sell they’ll become buyers facing the same tight inventory and high prices. That puts even more downward pressure on supply and makes the inventory shortage worse.
And buyers are hesitant because they saw what happened to people who paid top-dollar for houses just before the last crash.
“Everybody is scared of buying at the top of the market,” Osman says. “The hard thing is, you don’t know when the top is gonna be.”
That’s helped keep first-time homebuyers out of the market. They’re not the people in their 20s he remembers working with when he first became a real estate agent.
“When I started, my first-time buyers were like me,” he says. “You could get a loan with a heartbeat. Now my first-time buyers are in their 30s, and they’re very, very cautious.”
In 1981, the National Association of Realtors said the average first-time homebuyers were 29 years old, and they accounted for 44 percent of sales. Last year, first-time buyers accounted for just 33 percent of sales, and were 32 years old, on average.
For Osman, the books will close soon on 2019. He’s already planning ahead, taking photos of houses that clients plan to list early next year, so the landscaping doesn’t look bare and “all Sleepy Hollow” when they hit the market.
“At this point in the year, I pretty much have what I have.”
The first big surge of sales in Charlotte typically hits in February, after Bank of America disburses bonuses. For Realtors like Osman, it’s important to be ready.
And change will come. Leaving a client’s townhouse in Steel Gardens, Osman sees the signs written all over Charlotte, old and new jostling together.
Cruising down North Davidson Street, Osman points out a retro pickup truck with Free Range Brewing on its wood-paneled sides, parked near a Cadillac decked out in red sparkle paint and rims the size of his Jeep’s. Construction machinery clanks nearby, where workers built another block-long apartment building.
“That’s perfect. There’s Charlotte,” Osman says. “A hipster pick-up, a donk, apartments, and roads all torn up.”
Ely Portillo is assistant director at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. A former Charlotte Observer reporter, he’s been a journalist in Charlotte for more than 10 years.