Susan McManus and Ashley Lawson were confident they would get a great deal on a big home when they decided to relocate back to the Midwest after five years in Southern California.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
After a year of searching in Columbus, Ohio, they upped their target price by $500,000. Still, it was another 17 months before the couple closed on a four-bedroom, five-bathroom home in the historical German Village neighborhood—for $1.5 million. To win their home, they had to put in an offer the day the property went on the market.
“The million-dollar houses needed a bunch of work,” says Ms. McManus, a 49-year-old marketing executive. “I was shocked by how much prices had gone up.”
She and her partner, Ms. Lawson, 37, an attorney, then spent an additional $100,000 to remodel the nearly 5,000-square-foot American Foursquare overlooking Schiller Park. They wanted to preserve historic touches in the 1890s home, including wood paneling and stained glass.
Ohio’s capital, with a population approaching 900,000—2.1 million in the wider metropolitan area—is the fastest-growing urban area in the Midwest, says Aaron Renn, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who researches cities and urban policy. It also has been expanding physically, adding annexed areas to the city proper and to surrounding suburbs. Columbus proper was 224.7 square miles in 2019, compared with 143.5 square miles in 1970, according to city data on annexations.
“There’s a diversity in the types of places within the city limits,” Mr. Renn says, with some neighborhoods having a suburban feel.
Today, Columbus proper is ranked the 14th-largest city in the U.S., according to census data. Midcareer professionals relocating for jobs at workplaces such as Nationwide, JPMorgan Chase, Cardinal Health and Nationwide Children’s Hospital tend to be looking for higher-end homes, says Kelly Cantwell, a local real-estate agent at Keller Williams Classic Properties. She says luxury homes in the city start at about $650,000.
Adding to the figures, more Ohio State University graduates are staying put in the city, relocating to newly available amenity-filled apartments, she adds.
In Franklin County, which includes Columbus, overall home sales increased 6.4% in September from a year earlier, while inventory declined 4.9%, according to MLS data from the Columbus Realtors. The average sales price jumped 5.6% for the year through September, compared with the January through September period in 2018. Areas directly surrounding downtown are seeing a steady flow of new construction to meet the demand.
More buyers are choosing luxury properties. In September 2019, 60 homes over $700,000 were sold, compared with 51 the same month in 2018, according to MLS data from Ms. Cantwell.
Areas with the fastest growth include downtown, German Village and the Short North in the city proper, she says, and the suburban areas of Dublin, Upper Arlington and Grandview Heights. Families are drawn to single-family homes in the suburbs, while empty-nesters are buying condos in walkable areas downtown or in the Short North, she says. German Village, with its large inventory of historic homes, commands the highest per-square-foot prices, about $300, she adds.
“The job growth in the urban areas is really extending the run,” says Mark Wagenbrenner, 52, president of Thrive Cos., a developer specializing in rehabbing neglected land. In some neighborhoods, buyers have seen their houses nearly double in value since 2015, which stimulates more buying, he adds.
But there are growing pains. Developers, including Mr. Wagenbrenner, worry about the inventory exceeding demand. And while neighborhoods are walkable, many don’t have sufficient public transportation. That means traffic congestion, particularly in dense corridors like High Street in the Short North, he says.
After buying a run-down building for $680,000 in 2008 in the Short North, Brady Konya and his husband, Kyle Boettcher, worked with the city to rezone the warehouse area to include residential properties. Once that was successful, they took their time before starting a nearly $1 million project to transform the former buggy-storage space into a 3,000-square-foot condo, says Mr. Konya, 47, co-founder of the local Middle West Spirits distillery. Coming from Seattle, he was surprised by the affordability. “I sold my condo in Seattle and said, ‘Wow, we could buy a building,’ ” says Mr. Konya.
Inside the one-bedroom with two baths, they installed modern skylights, metal kitchen cabinets and a sliding garage door that functions as an oversize window. “We tried to be consistent with some of the aesthetics of the neighborhood,” adds Mr. Boettcher, 37.
The two-story building includes another unit on the same floor and a commercial space downstairs. Rent payments from the property fully cover the mortgage, Mr. Konya adds.
The Short North, an area of about 20 blocks, plus the Italian Village, Victorian Village and Harrison West neighborhoods, has seen $1.6 billion in new construction since 2000, says Betsy Pandora, executive director at the Short North Alliance. Several two-bedroom penthouses in the area are on the market for more than $1 million, according to Redfin. This fall, two boutique hotels opened, the Graduate and the Moxy, that target younger visitors.
Empty-nesters are leaving their single-family suburban homes to find low-maintenance options closer to entertainment in the area, says Mr. Wagenbrenner, the developer. “Roof decks are the rage,” he adds.
Mr. Wagenbrenner is completing Jeffrey Park, a complex on a 41-acre former factory site in Italian Village, a former immigrant neighborhood. It will have about 1,000 rental apartments plus about 500 units that will be a mix of single-family homes, condos and townhouses. To appeal to older buyers, he offers elevators in some units.
House hunters are also heading to the city’s Arena district, where a $230 million soccer stadium for the Columbus Crew Soccer Club is under way. Parks Edge condominiums, completed last year by Nationwide Realty Investors, offers 151 condo and townhouse units for $700,000 to $900,000.
Mr. Wagenbrenner points to the banks of the city’s five major rivers as possible future development targets. He is working on Quarry Trails, a 600-acre mixed-use riverside project that is to include homes and public parks.
Nearby, the suburbs, including Dublin and New Albany, have big luxury homes and prices that often exceed those in the city proper, says Ms. Cantwell. The most expensive home in the Columbus area was a 7,387-square-foot Georgian-style five-bedroom that sold for $3.7 million in New Albany last year, according to MLS data provided by Ms. Cantwell. The largest home sold last year was a 10,200-square-foot home in Dublin that went for $2.2 million.
Families with school-age children tend to buy in the first-ring suburbs within interstate 270 in Bexley, Upper Arlington, Worthington and Grandview Heights, says developer Brett Kaufman, whose Gravity development in the growing Franklinton neighborhood includes rentals and a co-working space opened this year.
Last year, Mr. Kaufman, 44, remodeled his own 12,000-square-foot home in Bexley that he bought for his family for $1.85 million in 2014, public records show. The 1-acre property has tennis and basketball courts, a pool and a pool house—all invisible from the street. “You pull in and it’s not some wide ostentatious home—it is a little bit more subtle,” he says.
Inside, he added nearly 4,000 square feet to the original 1928 layout, including a recording studio and a gym built over a garage.
“It was a beautiful home, but very dated; it needed a lot of work,” says Mr. Kaufman who declined to share renovation costs. A similar updated home in the area would be valued at about $4 million, based on square footage data on the Redfin site.
Near downtown, an affordable stock of historical Victorian homes again are becoming a draw, following decades of disrepair.
Catherine and Bryan Williamson, both 34 and both interior designers, bought a vintage home in the Olde Towne East neighborhood for $152,000. They relocated to Columbus from New York in 2013 and purchased the home in 2017 after its previous owner contacted them via Instagram. He had been following them, says Ms. Williamson, and was looking for buyers who would keep the home’s original Victorian splendor.
The couple spent $200,000 on an interior and exterior renovation. They did most of the work themselves, keeping the original floors and layout, and using classic molding to create the feel of a Parisian apartment.
The renovation was completed this fall after nearly three years. “Seeing the momentum of this neighborhood,” Ms. Williamson says, “made us feel comfortable with going higher-end on our finishes and taking the extra time.”