AgentReal Estate

Housing can’t keep pace with explosive population growth in this South Carolina town 

High prices and tight inventory squeeze out first time homebuyers in Bluffton, SC

Bluffton, South Carolina has historically been known for being a place between here and there. Located on the banks of the May River, it has largely been overshadowed by Savannah, Georgia, about a 30 minute drive away, and Hilton Head Island, the Lowcountry tourist mecca replete with beaches and natural splendor.

“Pre-COVID, the majority of the people that I worked with were either local or else they were planning retirement,” said Beth Drake, a local Keller Williams agent. “Now, I’m seeing families. I’ve helped a lot of families from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Pennsylvania, different areas and they are moving here since the parents can work from home. So, they are enjoying the outdoors and our school system, which have been open throughout the pandemic. So, I feel like the demographics are changing as far as it has gotten a lot younger.”

Since 2010, Bluffton’s population has roughly tripled to about 34,000, making it one of the fastest growing towns in America, and moving it out of Hilton Head’s shadow.

But growth comes at a cost: this influx of new residents and prospective homebuyers has strained the community’s housing market. According to the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors, the median home sale price jumped 15.3% in 2021 to $330,745.

“It is extraordinarily hot,” said Tim Peirce, another local Keller Williams Realtor. “The agents on my team are having to be extremely competitive when making offers. One of my agents has a client who is making an offer on a house that will probably end up going for over $250,000 over list price and most of what we are seeing is either all cash offers or eliminating contingencies.”

Previously viewed as just a place to drive through on the way to the vacation destination of Hilton Head, Bluffton’s housing market started coming into its own in the mid-2000s just in time for the Great Recession in 2008.

“We just bottomed out, flatlined in 2010,” local RE/MAX agent Lea Allen said. “It started coming back alive in like 2015 and then it kept going at a normal pace, picking up speed each year after that until COVID. At first, I thought it was going to be just like 2007, 2008 and the market was going to crash, but then it did just the opposite.”

With the number of total sales closed in the Bluffton general area rising 8.1% year over year, the housing market here has rebounded. At the same time, however, inventory is continuing to shrink. Across the greater Hilton Head area, inventory dropped 50.8% year over year in 2021, ending the year with just 483 active listings. However, there are signs of new supply hitting the market.

“Despite the fact that we continue to lose inventory, new listings continue to go up and pending sales continue to go up,” Peirce said. “So, we’re selling more houses, but the inventory is moving so quickly and it’s so competitive, that we’re continuing to remain extraordinarily low.”

These high demand and tight inventory conditions have spurred bidding wars and the more widespread use of escalation clauses.

“The bidding wars are pretty constants,” Peirce said. “It might be 10 offers it might be five, it really depends on the property, but I’ve been in this business here for 19 years and in the past it was not common to see escalation clauses and in the past two years it has been super common to see escalation clauses or to give the seller flexibility to remain in the home. One of my agents actually just wrote an offer a few weeks ago on a house that was listed a little less than $1.1 million and the winning offer was $150,000 over asking price, no contingencies and gave the seller six months free post occupancy.”

All of this has of course meant that things are tough for first-time homebuyers. On the day I spoke with Drake she said there was only nine properties on the market in Bluffton for under $600,000.

“The first-time homebuyers are really just shut out unfortunately,” Drake said. “When we’re dealing with first-time homebuyers they are ending up having to go to a developer and building times right now are about a year out. But most first-time buyers aren’t able to waive appraisals or produce substantially more money through financing. It has been really frustrating for first-time buyers.”

While local agents would like to see market conditions ease up, especially for first time buyers, they don’t see the market slowing down any time soon. The state of South Carolina saw the third highest percentage of inbound movement in 2021 (63%), according to U.S. News and World Report.

“We are not seeing any reason for a slow down,” Allen said. “People are coming to our state for all the open spaces, the beach, just the ability to get outside and breath.”

Peirce added: “I believe that our market was undiscovered and undervalued for a really long time. I think our market has a tremendous amount to offer and it’s still a great value. As we head into spring I do expect to see continued appreciation and I am hopeful that we will continue to see more listings come on the market, but I do believe that it is going to be really competitive and buyer are going to have to move fast in order to get a house.”