Why people are investing in North Carolina

HAVENS Highlands and Cashiers, N.C.; On the Blue Ridge, Twin Towns Draw a Younger Crowd

HIGHWAY 64 rises on the one-hour drive from Asheville, N.C., to the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As it climbs, the cool mountain air and the wide expanse of sky offer a sense of refuge for those arriving from hot, sticky cities like Atlanta and Charleston.

That sense of refuge has drawn Southerners to homes in the twin towns of Highlands and Cashiers for well over a century. But now, with more and more part-time residents staying beyond the summer and a younger, more active set of homeowners over all, it may no longer be true to say that Highlands-Cashiers is one of the best-kept second-home secrets in the nation.

Once, the towns' trademark feature was their several golf communities for retirees, said Ann McKee Austin, a local real estate agent. But now, she said, you're likelier to see ''the S.U.V. with the Labrador in the back and the kayak on top.'' Or, as Cathy Garren, another real estate agent, put it: ''It used to be retirees from Florida. Now it's working people from Atlanta.''

They come for the mild weather and for the lush forests and waterfalls set amid stunning mountain silhouettes. But despite the climate and the setting, relative distance from big cities has helped to keep real estate prices from skyrocketing; local agents say that in the last five years, prices have increased from 12 to 20 percent. ''This is not a boom or bust area, where you have windfall years and then slack years,'' Ms. Austin said. ''It's consistent and steady. We like it that way. It's not some kind of new, made-up town on the coast of Florida.''

The Scene
Highlands and Cashiers (pronounced CASH-ers) are equally affluent fraternal twins, nestled in the midst of the Nantahala National Forest. The area has been used as a summer retreat since the mid-1800's, when wealthy families from the Low Country of South Carolina began putting up summer cottages and modest Greek Revival houses there. The town of Highlands was founded in 1875 by Kansas developers who, the story goes, drew two lines on a map, one from Chicago to Savannah, the other from New York City to New Orleans, believing that the intersection would be ideal for trade.

Today, if there is a difference between the two towns, it is that Cashiers is a little bit country, Highlands a little bit country club. Highlands, fittingly, is also higher, at an elevation of 4,113 feet to Cashiers's 3,500 feet. New homes in both towns tend to be large houses located either in gated communities or on estate lots of five acres or more.

Highlands has a proper Main Street, which draws strolling day-trippers in khakis and polo shirts. But both towns offer plenty of boutique shopping and local crafts. For activities, there's a lot to do, from pampering to playing in the rugged outdoors. You can indulge in a massage at the spa of the Old Edwards Inn on Main Street in Highlands or play croquet on the lawn of the Chattooga Club in Cashiers. Or you can climb the sheer face of Whiteside Mountain, hike to the 411-foot-tall Whitewater Falls or fish on Lake Glenville.

Mike Hays, who owns an insurance agency in Sarasota, Fla., lived between the two towns for five years and is buying a new home in Cashiers. ''I like living in Cashiers and going to Highlands,'' said Mr. Hays, a 36-year-old father of two young children. ''We've got a mountain double-jog-stroller, and we take the kids hiking with us. We go out for ice cream, We play in the yard. We're at home.'' Mr. Hays's family comes back to the area in the fall for the colors and at Thanksgiving.

Sue Gail, originally from England, lives most of the year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and found herself at Highlands Falls Country Club in 2001, after her husband, a developer, began working on projects in the area. Ms. Gail, 60, started the Highlands Film Festival, which just completed its second year. She and her husband spend several months in Highlands in the summer; she says many residents she knows are spending more and more time there. ''It's beautiful,'' she said. ''People are so wonderful up here. It's a rejuvenating getaway.''

Property taxes vary but are relatively low (an example: $1,485 a year for 6.94 acres). Views are long, summers are mild and breezy, and fall features a mind-boggling palette of colors.

There are many golf courses of distinction in the area. Bobby Jones spent several summers at the Highlands Country Club, and he still holds the course record. The Wade Hampton Club, designed by a golf course guru and area resident, Tom Fazio, was ranked 17th in the United States by Golf Digest in 2005.

Outdoor Magazine ranked Cashiers one of America's ''top dream towns'' in 2004.
If exerting yourself is not a priority, there are plenty of shops and restaurants in both towns, or you can hop into your car and go for a scenic drive.

Anything that travels to the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau takes the same twisting drive, and getting stuck behind a land-yacht can add time and nausea to your trip.
Unincorporated Cashiers is dry, though brown-bagging is permitted practically everywhere. Alcohol can be bought in Highlands, which is incorporated, but laws there are complicated (some restaurants can serve wine, but not beer). Nevertheless, many club communities have stocked bars and restaurants, and private restaurant clubs (membership fees range from a dollar a year to more than $100) have full permits.

Some of the restaurants and shops shut down during the winter, and even in summer, things close early. ''We do have some great restaurants,'' said Debi Dickson, an Atlanta resident who spends four months a year in Highlands. ''Just don't expect to eat at them at 10 p.m.''

The Real Estate Market
Expect to spend at least $700,000 to buy into one of the high-end, full-amenity gated communities. (Many of the club amenities in those communities close in the winter.) Houses at that price will probably not include a view or a fancy kitchen. At about $900,000, you can begin to have a house with everything: views, granite countertops, extensive decks, three bedrooms, an acre of land. Styles vary, but variations on Adirondack, Shingle-style and English cottage are popular.

Bargains can still be found in some of the smaller, older cottages in the woods, especially if you're willing to be 10 to 15 miles outside town. With some searching, you can perhaps find a little bungalow, a ranch or an A-frame in the $200,000-to-$400,000 range with two or three bedrooms, depending on the condition and age of the home.

It's not unusual for a house to stay on the market for six months because of the seasonal nature of home sales. Ms. Austin recently sold a three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath, 1,962-square-foot Shingle-style house on 3.47 acres in the Chattooga Club. It had another 1,069 square feet in porches and decks, views and included many antiques. It was listed at $2,295,000 and sold 35 days later for $2,245,000.

Ms. Garren recently sold a 30-year-old three-bedroom, three-bath house on .81 acres in a subdivision for $440,000. It was on the market for 64 days.

There is a good deal of new high-end development in the area, more than 3,000 acres in and around Cashiers alone. But agents suspect that the out-of-the-way location of Highlands-Cashiers, although attractive, keeps prices and development from spiraling out of control.

''We don't want the fudge factories, the T-shirt shops and water slides,'' Ms. Austin said.

LAY OF THE LAND POPULATION -- The Highlands area has about 3,000 year-round residents and about 20,000 in season. The area around Cashiers has 1,700 year-round residents and about 10,000 in season.

LOCATION -- Western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, roughly 80 miles southwest of Asheville.

WHO'S BUYING -- Retirees with a love of golf who park themselves there for the summer and wealthy pre-retirees from nearby Atlanta who use their homes throughout the year. Still a favorite of Southerners, but Midwesterners are starting to stop in.

GETTING THERE -- Asheville's airport is the closest at about 60 miles, roughly an hour and a half drive. The Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport is a two-hour drive away in South Carolina. Atlanta is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away.

WHILE YOU'RE LOOKING -- The Old Edwards Inn and Spa (445 Main Street, 866-526-8008) on Main Street in Highlands offers Swedish massage packages, upscale shops and fine dining in Madison's Restaurant and Wine Garden. Its 30 rooms, suites and cottages start at $235.

For questions pertaining to the Cashiers/Highlands Real Estate market contact The Carolina Plateau Group info@carolinapg.com or call toll-free 888-277-2006 x2