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Home sales are up significantly in Southern Illinois

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on many sectors of the local economy, and unemployment numbers remain elevated. But in these weird times, the real estate market has found a place to shine. Home sales are up significantly across much of Southern Illinois, and those listed for sale are finding buyers more quickly than is typical for this time of year.

Teresa Camarato, the designated managing broker/owner of Herrin-based Property with TLC, said recent real estate trends in Southern Illinois more closely resemble those in fast-growth, competitive urban markets. For this area, “it’s very unique,” she said. For one thing, there are far more people shopping for homes than there are homes on the market. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for sellers with move-in ready properties in desirable locations to receive multiple offers and go under contract within days of listing them, several regional real estate agents told The Southern in interviews this week.

“When somebody asks about the housing market, we go, ‘Well, you remember what happened with the toilet paper?’” joked Camarato.

Jackson and Williamson counties, in particular, are seeing a boom in activity.

Jackson County experienced a nearly 73% increase in August closings compared to August 2019, increasing from 44 to 76, according to the most recent monthly figures available from Illinois Realtors, a trade association that represents real estate agents statewide. August closings were up nearly 21% in Williamson County compared to the same month a year prior, increasing from 72 to 87. July year-over-year sales were also up in both counties.

For comparison, closings were up nearly 17% statewide this August compared to August 2019.

Some of this late-season activity is attributable to the pandemic. The real estate market took a hit in the early spring, typically the busiest season, as the U.S. began to grapple with the reality of COVID-19 breaching its borders. Real estate activities were deemed essential and allowed to continue under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s initial March stay-at-home order. But near daily warnings about the importance of avoiding others and hunkering down at home caused some sellers to remove their homes from the market or curtail showings, Southern Illinois real estate agents said. Many buyers also hit pause amid the economic and public health uncertainty, locally and nationally.

Crown Brew Coffee opens in new Marion location

MARION — Jared Gravatt says walking through the new home of Crown Brew Coffee is like “walking through a dream.” His dream was to create a space with exposed brick and great art that served a great cup of coffee. The new location of Crown Brew Coffee at 107 Union St. is in many ways the fulfillment of that dream.

“When COVID hit back in March, I thought oh my gosh, we’re never going to sell another house for the rest of the year,” said Celia Robertson, managing broker/owner of House2 Home Realty, based in Marion.

But the panic was short-lived. In March, the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, took steps to stabilize economic activity and boost borrowing power amid the pandemic. The Fed doesn’t directly control mortgage rates, but its activities can significantly impact them. That has been the case this year. In late March, the Fed announced it would buy billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities, escalating demand and dropping mortgage rates to unprecedented lows, explained Dan Green, a money and mortgage expert, in an article for The Mortgage Reports, a trade publication focused on mortgage-related news.

“All of the sudden, everybody came out at once,” said Brenda Straddeck, a real estate agent with Century 21 House of Realty. “So the market looked like it was going crazy and everything was moving.”

“When the interest rates fell,” added Robertson, “it was insane. Some people were getting rates as low as 2.25% and 2.5%. We couldn’t keep up. In fact, we still need listings. We have buyers that we cannot find houses for. So it’s actually been a really good year, surprisingly.”

For Southern Illinois, August’s uptick in sales wasn’t an anomaly. In Jackson County, home sales were up more than 19% from January through August of this year compared to the same time frame last year. Based on the same comparative months, home sales were up nearly 18% in Williamson County. Some surrounding rural counties have also seen a boost in activity. Year-to-date home sales through August were up nearly 19% in Franklin County, and 16% in Union County.

Statewide, year-to-date home sales are down 1.4%.

“We’re outperforming the state numbers,” said Ayn Bartok, managing broker/owner of All In One Real Estate Co., based in Harrisburg, and president-elect of the Egyptian Board of Realtors, which represents the industry in Southern Illinois.

Bartok said that some of the activity is attributed to people looking to change homes within their existing town, either because they need a larger house for an expanding family or a smaller one as children grow up and move out. In other cases, people are moving from one side of the market area to the other, such as from Harrisburg to Carbondale. But a surprising number of people shopping for homes right now are people moving here from elsewhere.

“In our area, we’re definitely seeing people from out of our area, be it from up north within the state of Illinois and/or we’re seeing out-of-state buyers, which seems unique at this time,” Bartok said.

Judy Grisley, broker and co-owner of Marion-based Southern Realty LLC, said she’s also received a number of calls from people looking to relocate. Some people have family here, or they went to school here as a young person and remember liking the experience, she said. But others seem to have no known ties. Whenever someone unfamiliar with the area calls to inquire about moving here, Grisley said she enjoys telling them about what the region has to offer.

“We’re kinda a free tourist bureau,” she said.

Greg Holthaus, designated managing broker/owner of Coldwell Banker Prime Realty, with locations in Williamson and Jackson counties, said he also makes an effort to point out what one can get in Southern Illinois compared to elsewhere. He said a friend called him this week from Orinda, California, excited she was able to finally purchase a modest 1,600-square-foot home for a cool $1.2 million.

“Can you imagine what you could purchase here for that?” he said. “All things have to be put into perspective at times. Conditions are not perfect here, but they are not terrible either. We live in one of the most beautiful regions in the United States.”

Also surprising about the market right now, real estate agents said homes are selling across the price spectrum. “One of my agents just sold a $15,000 house in Saline County and then we just sold one at Lake of Egypt for $600,000.” Robertson said.

On the average, though, high demand is not causing homes to sell much beyond their asking price or appraised value, as can happen in a competitive market. “The curious thing about it is the prices haven’t really gone up. They’ve stayed stable,” Camarato said.

In Jackson County, the median sales price between January and August 2019 was $96,500. The median price for the same time frame this year was $90,000 — a decline of about 7%. In Williamson County, the median sales price increased by 0.8%, from $129,000 during the same months in 2019, to $130,000 this year.

In both counties, homes have spent fewer days on the market this year prior to selling.

The most popular homes that move the fastest at most any price point are those that are “buyer ready,” Holthaus said. Banking standards play a role in discouraging homes that need a lot of work. In Southern Illinois, many buyers utilize USDA Rural Development, VA and FHA loans, all of which have standards in quality that have to be met prior to issuance. “Make no mistake, if you have a home that can pass with ease in these programs, the chances of a shorter market time, better price, and easier closing with less problems will increase,” he said.

Buyers are encouraged to get preapproved for a loan. Without that in hand, they may get passed over by a buyer that receives multiple offers with properties moving so quickly.

“We’ve had it where we’ve put a house up for sale, and the first day we’ve got three offers on it,” Camarato said.

Real estate agents said the market may steady as more buyers place homes on the market for sale. As for low interest rates, the Fed has signaled they are likely to stick around for some time.

Robertson said she hopes that’s the case, “because this has just been great for us.” It’s also a boost to the local economy in an uncertain time. The fast real estate market means more work for not only real estate agents, but also lenders, appraisers, home inspectors, contractors and others.

“What real estate people do for our own community — our community doesn’t really realize how valuable we are,” Grisley added. “We bring new buyers in, and of course when they come in, they’ve got to spend the money. They’ve got to go to the lumber yard. They buy supplies. They’ve got to send to their kids to school, and they’ve got to shop.”


Local
editor's pick top story
Crown Brew Coffee opens in new Marion location

MARION — Jared Gravatt says walking through the new home of Crown Brew Coffee is like “walking through a dream.” His dream was to create a space with exposed brick and great art that served a great cup of coffee. The new location of Crown Brew Coffee at 107 Union St. is in many ways the fulfillment of that dream.

Jared Gravatt and Josh Benitone began working on the building in Marion in 2019 shortly after unforeseen circumstances caused the business to close its Carterville location in late September 2019.

“It’s almost been a full year,” Gravatt said.

Benitone said they had an unexpected end to Crown Brew’s former location, but the amount of love, grace and support they have experienced in that past year has been amazing.

They opened in early September, serving outside the building. In mid-September, they moved inside, serving carry-out drinks with limited outside seating. As the Crown Brew community began to return, people naturally started sitting in the beautiful indoor spaces. Gravatt said it just happened organically as customers returned.

“I don’t think we’ve lost anyone,” Benitone said.

To make the space inviting, the men, with the help of family, friends and co-workers, took the building to “sticks, bricks and concrete.”

Benitone said they did all the work themselves that they were legally able to do.

“This building has been bars and brothels since the day it was born. It was dark, moody and scandalous. We wanted a space that was warm, bright, safe and inviting,” Gravatt said.

They did the demolition and rebuilt the space. They figured out how to do the things that needed done. They did not want to compromise on anything.

“The entire place is literally custom,” Gravatt said.

The men salvaged what they could from the building. The old bar was sold and will be put to use in another location. Wood from the walls was turned into artwork that is behind the new bar.

Benitone said they literally turned Gravatt’s vision and design into reality.

“We want to be something the region can be proud of; we want to serve the community in the best way we can,” Gravatt said.

Marilyn Halstead / Marilyn Halstead, The Southern 

Crown Brew Coffee has reopened at 107 E. Union St. in Marion. 

They created Marion United in the spring, and hosted an online fundraiser for local businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. That really helped them connect to the community and learn about the other businesses within Marion, they said.

“The support of the city, city government and the community has been overwhelming to us,” Gravatt said. “It reminds us why we’ve put in the work we have.”

For example, when they had tools stolen from the business in May, other businesses and individuals loaned them tools and ladders to complete construction.

Gravatt hopes other feel the freedom to start businesses in Marion.

“Marion has a community and city government that genuinely care about business success,” Gravatt said.

The artwork on the walls was created by Nathaniel Darling, Crown Brew’s resident barista/artist. He was artfully creating some of their signature coffee drinks on Friday morning.

The other face behind the bar (or half-face, while wearing his mask) was Gravatt’s older brother, Jonathan.

Gravatt and Benitone still have a little work to do on the building before the business grand opening, which is planned for Oct. 16. Fans can expect a few surprises in coming weeks. Benitone said they still have a “few tricks up our sleeves.”

They will continue to raise money for worthy causes. Their current focus is toward Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Illinois, which is expanding to Marion.

“Starting a business was never on Jared or my plans for our lives. I always feel like Crown Brew is a gift to Southern Illinois,” Benitone said.

Crown Brew is located at 107 E. Union St. in Marion. Currently, they are open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Online ordering is available at www.crownbrewcoffee.com.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick top story
Election 2020
Southern Illinois county clerks prepare for surge in mail-in ballots

MURPHYSBORO — The expansion of vote-by-mail in Illinois has produced a lot of political discourse, and at times a lot of hot air, but Southern Illinois county clerks are confident in their systems for Nov. 3 general election.

Frank Byrd, Jackson County’s clerk, said he’s been working feverishly to ensure that the election in Jackson County is accurate, safe and hitch-free, at least as much as it can be.

“I’m a little obsessive,” Byrd said.

Provided 

Byrd

He said he has taken measures to ensure mail-in ballots are protected, even going so far as to purchase and install a ballot retrieval box outside the courthouse in Murphysboro for those who are more comfortable handing over their ballots themselves.

“If they don’t feel comfortable sending in the ballot through the mail they can bring it to the ballot retrieval box on the west side of the courthouse,” Byrd said.

He said he is also offering curbside voting for those concerned with COVID-19. It will happen at the courthouse — voters will call a posted phone number and two election judges, one Democrat and one Republican, will take the ballot to the voter and return it once they are finished.

In his quest to offer as many voting options to Jackson County residents as he can, and to keep the risk for COVID-19 exposure down, Byrd said he also was trying to use as little taxpayer money as he could. So, he has applied and received grant funding — more than $40,000 — to help cover some of the costs, not only of expanding services, but also to cover the cost of COVID-19 precautions like masks and gloves.

Also, according to a state law that went into effect this summer, he has mailed a vote-by-mail application to anyone who was active in any of the last three elections. He said during the 2016 presidential election his office received 1,115 requests for this service. This year the number is as high as 4,850.

Union and Williamson counties have seen a similar spike. Union County Clerk Lance Meisenheimer said his office averages about 500 requests for mail-in ballots each election year. But this year the number is more than 1,100. Amanda Barnes, Williamson County’s clerk, said in 2018 her office had 1,800 requests for mail-in-ballots. She said she mailed out about 5,300 this week.

However, despite the surge in mail-in ballots, Byrd, Barnes and Meisenheimer felt confident it should not delay election results. Byrd and Meisenheimer said there will still be ballots counted after election day. Ballots can be counted up to two weeks after the election if post marked before Nov. 3. But, they said, even with a surge in mail-in ballots, these are not likely to impact results.

Provided 

Meisenheimer

With the expansion of vote-by-mail, Meisenheimer said, there has been a lot of confusion. He said counties are mailing out applications, and other organizations have mailed them out, too, causing confusion.

“Any time you change anything there’s doubt with people,” he said. “I’m constantly working to put out those fires.”

Meisenheimer said he was confident in his office and its ability to hold a reliable election.

“I know the results will be right,” he said.


Local
breaking top story
One Southern Illinois county at warning level for COVID-19 this week

Only one Southern Illinois county is at a warning level for COVID-19 spread this week, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Hamilton County is among 17 counties statewide to receive the designation based upon meeting two or more risk indicators. Williamson County, which had been at a warning level for several weeks, fell off the IDPH list issued Friday.

While a hopeful indication of moving in the right direction, it doesn't mean the risk has gone away for Williamson or other regional counties. Health officials continue to stress the importance of following guidelines such as social distancing, wearing a mask in public and frequent hand washing. 

The other counties at a warning level are: Bond, Boone, Cass, Christian, Clinton, Crawford, DeWitt, Fayette, Grundy, Macon, Menard, Peoria, Putnam, Washington, Wayne, and Winnebago.

Although the reasons for counties reaching a warning level vary, some of the common factors for an increase in cases and outbreaks are associated with university and college parties as well as college sports teams, large gatherings and events, bars and clubs, weddings and funerals, long-term care facilities, correctional centers, schools, and cases among the community at large.

Some communities lack access to convenient testing before people become symptomatic, IDPH said. Across Southern Illinois, health departments have made efforts to enhance convenient and no-cost testing options for residents. High testing positivity rates contributed to several Southern Illinois counties getting listed at a warning level in past weeks. 

IDPH says it issues warning level metrics to provide local level awareness and help local leaders, businesses, health departments and the public make informed decisions.

The metrics are updated weekly, from the Sunday-Saturday of the prior week.

A map and information of each county’s status can be found on the IDPH website at dph.illinois.gov/countymetrics.