A year ago, as they set off for their annual vacation in the woods, Lee Whitehurst turned to his wife, Debbie, and declared: "I'm sick of having to load half the house into the car." So instead of camping, they went hunting for land.
The couple eventually discovered eight acres in a tranquil corner of the world far removed from their house in bustling Alexandria. They hope to complete a log-home retreat in a secluded community by September.
But in their search for solitude they have joined a different kind of bustle, a veritable land rush by baby boomers contending for second homes within a few hours' drive of megalopolis. The Whitehursts and a parade of fellow property prospectors are turning the rugged vistas and leafy lots of West Virginia hotter than the baths at Berkeley Springs.
How hot is West Virginia?
So hot that a 3,200-acre development of 20-acre and bigger parcels just west of Front Royal sold out in 11 months last year, and a big-sister development of 10,000 acres farther west is going fast.
So hot that land prices have doubled and even tripled in the past couple years in the two West Virginia counties west of Front Royal and Winchester. That is true not only in traditional recreational areas, but also for farmland and very remote acreage. Land prices are not as dear as they are at the shore, or in Lake Anna in Virginia or Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland, but at $3,000 to $5,000 an acre for some lots, they are starting to raise eyebrows.
From 1990 to 2000, West Virginia had the second-biggest jump in the nation in the share of its housing considered "seasonal," according to a West Virginia University analysis of recent census data. The state trailed only Hawaii. The Mountain State also was the sixth-fastest-growing state for second homes in the last decade, behind Hawaii, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, said Randy Childs, a West Virginia University economist.
In parts of the Mountain State just over the Virginia line from where I-66 and I-81 hook up in Strasburg, demand from buyers is intensifying. The names of Lost River, Wardensville and Moorefield, tiny hamlets in Hardy and Hampshire counties with spectacular ridges and exceptional views of the George Washington National Forest, state parklands and mountains, may grow to be as familiar to D.C. escapees as Rehoboth Beach or the Shenandoah Valley.
The developer of the two huge parcels spurring the market in the two counties advertises heavily on Washington area radio stations and in The Washington Post to tap into what he believes is an eager audience.
"The bulk of our buyers are from the Virginia line to Philadelphia," including the Washington-Baltimore corridor, said L. Hunter Wilson, owner of Hunter Co. of West Virginia.
"They're all people that want a little bit of space, want the peace and quiet and have the money to buy," he said. "And people see the value out here. If you look at the price of a 10-acre tract in Loudoun County, it's over a quarter of a million dollars."
In contrast, Wilson started prices at $64,900 on the 118 lots of 20 acres or more at River Ridge Estates near Wardensville and on the 350 lots in Ashton Woods. River Ridge sold out in less than a year last fall. Ashton Woods went on the market in November and has since drawn about 60 buyers.
Wilson has gotten so many inquiries that prospective buyers have been penciled in for three-hour tours, starting at 5 a.m. some weekends.
Real estate agents working around Wilson's new developments, as well as in the trendy Lost River area to the south and in areas closer to the popular Canaan Valley ski resort, are beginning to offer access to their properties through the Washington area's multiple-listing service, Metropolitan Regional Information Services Inc. Some agents say city folk like to check out listings by themselves via the Internet rather than flip through listing books at small-town realty agencies.
That idea still strikes some old-time West Virginia agents as unnecessary or impersonal. But those who offer MRIS listings suggest that the pace is quickening in hill country and that longtimers could lose their grip on the market if they do not keep up.
While Census trackers confirm that there has been big interest in the state, agents and locals think demand will explode when a planned new federal highway opens.
The 100-mile, four-lane interstate, which will connect mountain recreational areas to I-79 to the west and to I-81, I-66 and Virginia to the east, is moving ahead after years of controversy and debate.
Known as Corridor H or the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System, in honor of the senior senator from West Virginia, the highway is already built from I-79 at Weston to Kerens, just north of Elkins. Nine miles of road in the Hardy/Hampshire area are also complete, and construction is speeding along on the Moorefield to Wardensville section.
Once the interstate is finished, driving time from the Beltway to Ashton Woods, which is right off the Moorefield exit, and to other nearby land will be cut dramatically.
Jim Davis, an enthusiastic real estate entrepreneur who just opened an office in Baker, at the crossroads to Lost River, Wardensville and Moorefield, can't wait.
Davis neatly summarizes the categories of people who look for vacation land and the way the highway will widen their horizons.
"You've got the two-hour people, the three-hour people and the four-hour people," he said. "The two-hour people now say they only want to go as far as Wardensville, the three-hour people are going to Moorefield, and the four-hour people are going to Canaan Valley and the other side [of the state]. Once this road is in, Wardensville will still be about a hour and 45 minutes from Washington, but Moorefield will be about two hours and the Canaan Valley will be only three hours away."
The changes that a four-lane highway will bring can be calculated quite graphically by locals, who travel the winding 55-mph country roads on a daily basis.
"From Wardensville to Moorefield now, you're either behind a chicken truck or a log truck most days," Davis said. "It can take you forever to go 20 miles."
Poultry factories dot the landscape around the recreational areas in Hardy and Hampshire counties. A large chicken processing plant sits right in the town of Moorefield. The area, which is also known for its hardwoods, is busy with 18-wheel timber trucks.
The two-lane roads are not only potentially trying but also quite treacherous, many say, and will not be missed for that reason. For visitors now, the routes are even more aggravating, as warning signs of flag men and blasting zones ahead pop up around bends and curves.
While Davis thinks the coming of the highway is already boosting buying, Phyllis Cook, broker and owner of Classic Properties Inc. in Moorefield, believes her town will not really take off until the road is completed. Moorefield, after all, is on the other side of the mountain from Wardensville -- and one mountain farther from the Washington area.
Lately, Cook said, business "has slowed because of the war and the stock market."
Longtime real estate broker E.E. Bayliss Jr., who opened a branch of his Winchester company in Wardensville about 10 years ago as he saw the market heat up, also sees some slowing. But the 49-year real estate veteran predicts the market will pick back up quickly as war worries fade.
Davis and others, however, contend the war and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have heightened interest from Washingtonians, who are reminded constantly that they are in a high-profile area.
"My last buyer is a psychiatrist who says he's buying out here because if there should be a quote unquote event, he wants to make sure he has another location to go to," said agent Bob Dillard, who works with Davis Realty LLC.
"Terrorism definitely was not on our minds when we decided to buy," said Dave Patton, a Centreville resident who recently bought a 29-acre parcel in River Ridge Estates with his wife, Carmen. "But now that we have the property, that's our contingency plan, to meet there."
Patton, 42, a software consultant, said he had been looking around "for quite some time" to buy his first vacation property. He chose River Ridge, he said, because of his $110,000 lot's stunning view and the privacy. He is in the midst of buying an upscale log home from Davis, who represents Kuhns Bros., a high-end log home builder.
Another incentive, Patton said, was West Virginia's attitude on regulations. "There are very few laws as to what you can do with your property," he said. "When we looked in Virginia, most of the people who were selling were totally anal -- they'd say, 'You can't do this, you can't do that, blah blah blah.' "
But Patton is happy that there are some regulations at River Ridge: no trailers, no trash, no subdividing.
West Virginia's low property taxes are also attractive. "Just over the line, in Virginia, the taxes are so high that it's pretty much an astronomical difference," Patton said.
The quiet and the privacy are what drew John C. Harvey Jr., president of the Lost River Valley Property Owners Association and a lawyer with the Baltimore public defender's office. Harvey started camping in Lost River in 1995 and bought two parcels in 2000. But he still has not built a house yet; he stays at a neighbor's house or in a tent.
The area, Harvey said, draws people who love the nearby Lost River State Park, which has rental cabins and a swimming pool in the summer, and those who enjoy bird-watching, hiking or camping.
Harvey thinks interest in Lost River and parts west "is going to rocket" because of the interstate. Lost River has been a destination for decades and is well known among Washingtonians. It was hailed as a "vacation boom town" in the Wall Street Journal in late 2001. But "Moorefield is a small, dusty West Virginia town that is poised for enormous growth" because of Ashton Woods and the coming interstate, said Harvey.
"A sign of things to come," Harvey added, is the Wal-Mart that has been built.
Cook and other agents say developer Wilson has already taken land prices to new heights with Ashton Woods and River Ridge Estates.
"Mr. Wilson kind of set the tone" when he started selling hundreds of lots for $3,000, $4,000 and $5,000 an acre, said John Bowman, owner and broker at Highland Trace Realty Inc. in Wardensville. "Five thousand dollars an acre wasn't unheard of, but it was more for two-and-a-half acre lots, not 20-acre lots," Bowman said.
Real estate broker Davis said buyers are paying twice as much for land than they did 18 months ago, but are willing to do so to get their dream vacation spot before someone else does.
"This is where it's happening. We can't list property fast enough to keep up with demand," Davis says, sitting in a log cabin office that opened last November. The office was built onto a mini-mart, gas station and post office at the junction of roads leading west to Ashton Woods, east to River Ridge and south to Lost River.
Newcomers are buying big homes and log mansions to put on the properties, said Davis, in contrast to the modest 1,000-square-foot cabins of the past. Log home prices of $300,000 to $500,000 are no longer unheard of, he said.
Davis said the sleepy nature of West Virginia sales is changing, from the use of multiple listings to Wilson's aggressive marketing.
"The stock market [downturn] really helped us," said John Bowman, owner of Highland Trace Realty in Wardensville. "Last year we had a phenomenal amount of cash buyers." Momentum is continuing this year, he said, because of the record low mortgage interest rates.
Recent buyers Lee and Debbie Whitehurst, both West Virginia natives, watched their Alexandria neighbors cash out equity to buy bigger houses in Northern Virginia, but the couple chose to invest their gains instead in a new log home in the woods near the Cacapon River.
"What does that give you, if you just move to a $600,000 mini-mansion in the city?" asked Lee Whitehurst, a geologist at the Environmental Protection Agency. "You just end up with a bigger house and a lot more to clean. But at the end of the driveway, you're still right where you were. We wanted the polar opposite of living in Northern Virginia."
West Virginians both welcome and worry about the swarm of buyers.
Only one county, Jefferson in the eastern panhandle, has a zoning law, said Judy Rodd, head of Friends of Blackwater, a group dedicated to protecting Blackwater Canyon in Tucker County. With wide-open land usage and development pressures, "we'll need to work hard to protect special places in the state before it's too late," Rodd said.
She said, "The wave of second-home development is just beginning." Timber companies such as MeadWestvaco, she said, are selling off chunks of land to developers without much public attention, and the state's scenic attractions are luring urbanites from surrounding states.
"Development can be a great thing, but you don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg," Rodd said. "We need to set aside key places and protect them."
MeadWestvaco, which was created in 2002 from the merger of two giant paper companies, was the source of the land for Wilson's two mammoth developments. He paid about $1,100 an acre for the parcels, which had been timbered over the years and then came up for sale quickly, according to agents who say they wish they'd made the deals themselves.
Wilson said he did not have an inside track on the deals, but just saw an opportunity when it popped up.
Others hope they find the same when they go looking for land in West Virginia. Real estate broker Davis noted that one recent buyer offering full price on a parcel "told me that if he needed to he'd pay a couple thousand more if that would seal the deal. I told him, 'You're not in Maryland anymore. You don't have to do that.' "