From its role in the Civil Rights movement to its growing reputation as the Hollywood of the South, new residents have flocked to Atlanta for decades. People come for the wealth of jobs (Atlanta is home to Fortune 500 companies such as Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot), the four-season climate, and the affordable cost of living. So if you’re hoping to buy your first house in Atlanta, the first thing to know is that you’ll be competing against these other buyers who want to put down roots.
Stunning growth since the 1960s has created a sprawling metro area that extends over 11 counties and is home to more than 6.5 million people. Congestion on area roads and highways is among the worst in the nation. Money Inc. finds traffic jams consume 108 hours a year for Atlanta drivers; the average commute time is 35 minutes. Smart homebuyers will factor the commute into any real estate decisions they make; as experts explain, Atlanta commutes have caused some homebuyers to regret their purchase almost immediately, a situation you definitely don’t want to experience.
If you’re new to the area and need help navigating the roads and avenues, read on. We’ve interviewed local real estate experts with decades of experience and have done the legwork to help you narrow your target area when you buy a house in Atlanta. With this comprehensive guide, you’ll find out what problems are common in Atlanta homes (and why you’ll definitely want a termite inspection and termite bond) and what neighborhoods match your unique criteria for the best place to live so that you can buy a house you’ll love living in for years.
Start with your budget in Atlanta
The median sales price of single-family homes in the region was $291,000 in May 2020, the Atlanta Board of Realtors reported. Atlanta’s median home price was just a shade above the national median of $284,600 in May 2020, according to the National Association of Realtors. (The median price is the midpoint, meaning half of all homes sold for less than the median, and half sold for more.) Remember, renovated homes in trendy in-town neighborhoods or country club subdivisions can easily cost two to three times the median price.
At interest rates in October 2020, a 30-year mortgage on a $289,737 house with 20% down would have a monthly payment of about $1,740. Compare that with the average rent of $1,960 for a one-bedroom apartment within the city limits cited by Apartment Guide in July 2020, and you understand why some people opt to buy a house in the Atlanta suburbs and commute instead of renting closer to work.
Property tax rates in Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, are the highest in the state, with a median payment of about $2,700. Nationally, the median real estate tax is about $2,279.
The cost of living in Atlanta is on par with the national average as of October 2020 (just 1% below the national average), according to Payscale. But if you’re new to the area, be prepared for certain expenses.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, your annual air conditioning bill will be an average $149 higher than Northern states, known for their mild summers. Atlantans use lots of air conditioning; it’s not unusual to start using the AC in early April, and you may need it into October.
Many communities in Atlanta, especially in the suburbs, are subdivisions or planned unit developments. These communities often have a homeowners’ association (HOA) that levies an annual fee to cover costs, such as the neighborhood pool, streetlights, and common property maintenance. Depending on what’s included, these fees amount to between $50 and $100 a month and can be wrapped into the monthly mortgage payment.
Get the lay of the land in Atlanta
The city of Atlanta’s population is about half a million, and it’s surrounded by suburbs that stretch for miles in all directions. Interstate 285, known locally as The Perimeter, draws a jagged circle around the city and its oldest ’burbs. You may hear people talk about OTP (outside the Perimeter) or ITP (inside the Perimeter) when discussing where they live or work.
Atlanta has multiple employment centers. Starting on the southern rim of I-285, there’s the airport and Delta Air Lines HQ, with Tyler Perry Studios just up the road. Moving north, you’ll find Downtown (home to Georgia-Pacific and Coke headquarters), Midtown, and Buckhead. The region is criss-crossed by three other interstate highways, which all intersect I-285 and create busy commercial centers with office highrises, shopping malls and apartments.
Public transportation is limited, especially outside the Perimeter. The MARTA subway system has lines that spread in all four directions from downtown, but many areas of the city are a long way from the nearest station.
Relocating buyers should consider where they’ll be working and how long a drive they’re comfortable with, advises Jennifer Mahota, a top agent with 15 years experience selling in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, including Cumming.
“A lot of people think they can handle an hour each way, and within six months, they are totally over it,” ready to move closer to the office or find a new job closer to home, she says.
“We always recommend taking a drive during rush hour, see what it’s like,” she notes.
Georgia real estate contracts include a due diligence period, typically lasting between 10 and 14 days, so if you’re worried about losing out on a house in a hot market, you can make an offer and take your test drive during due diligence. (But if you change your mind after the due diligence period is over, you could lose your earnest money deposit.)
Know the housing in Atlanta
Houses in Atlanta run the gamut, from small cottages in in-town neighborhoods to elegant McMansions in country club communities.
The age of the housing stock varies as well. In town, you’ll find older homes, many in gentrified neighborhoods, along with newer infill pockets and condominiums. Because the entire city burned during the Civil War, the oldest houses are from the late 1800s. Of these, the most glamorous are the Victorian beauties in Inman Park, but you’ll also find cottages and shotgun houses in other neighborhoods. Suburban options range from mid-century ranch homes in close-in areas to newer one-and two-story houses farther out.
Mahota, who has handled more single-family home transactions than 85% of Cumming agents, says buyers can expect to get a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home on a slab for around $360,000 in the Cumming area as of late summer 2020. Many of the houses built in the late 1990s have been updated, and there is some new construction.
Homes that are updated and move-in ready are in high demand. Popular features include white cabinets, stainless-steel appliances, and granite countertops. Gray is the go-to interior paint color. Open-concept floor plans are popular, and Mahota’s suburban buyers are also looking for yard space.
When showing houses, Tyler Carder, a top buyer’s agent with the Joanne Curtin team, cautions buyers to pay less attention to cosmetic updates and focus on whether pricey items like old, inefficient windows and HVAC systems have been replaced. The team has 19 years experience selling in the northern suburbs, including Alpharetta and Roswell.
“House flippers sometimes cut corners” by not updating costly systems, he says, and “first-time homebuyers sometimes fall victim to that” if their agent doesn’t point it out. Buyers can easily repaint walls if they don’t like the colors, and even changing out faucets or lighting can be a cost-efficient update, but having to replace the HVAC system is a big expense.
Local agents always advise getting a home inspection. And in addition to a standard inspection, Atlanta homes should undergo a termite inspection, says home inspector John Mease. He owns one of Yelp’s top-ranked inspection companies in Atlanta and has inspected more than 10,000 homes.
Mease advises getting a termite bond from a licensed pest control company. A kill bond guarantees the company will come back and exterminate any termites discovered later, while a repair bond also covers the cost of repairing the damage the termites cause.
However, “our No. 1 concern is moisture, because it brings termites, rot, and mold,” Mease says. He explains that the soil in Atlanta is a dense clay that holds water, which can perk into basements.
During an inspection, inspectors “physically probe classic spots — windows, doors and frames looking for moist spots or rot.” Inside the house, Mease uses an infrared camera to spot moisture issues and to find hot and cold spots that indicate insulation problems.
Atlanta neighborhoods to consider
When you buy a house in Atlanta, you’ll quickly discover the city has something for everyone.
If good schools are a concern
Candler Park has an 86 Livability Score according to AreaVibes, including an A+ in amenities. The neighborhood is walkable with parks, shops and restaurants, and a MARTA station nearby.
AreaVibes gives local schools an A+, with Lin Elementary School ranked third among all Atlanta Public Schools. The median home price here is much higher than the area average, $433,750.
If you want the big city experience
Living in Midtown gives you great access to Atlanta’s art scene, from the historic Fox Theatre to the High Museum of Art. Piedmont Park — where you’ll find the Botanical Gardens, walking trails and open spaces — is practically your backyard, and you have easy access to MARTA subway stations.
The median home value in the area is about $318,000, and this is one place where you’ll find plenty of condos. While AreaVibes gives the amenities an A+, the crime rate is higher than the citywide average.
If you want a close-in suburb
Decatur, a small town just to the east of the city of Atlanta, is near Emory University and the federal Centers for Disease Control. It has a subway station, so you can jump on a MARTA train to get to work or to Mercedes-Benz Stadium downtown for a Falcons or Hawks game.
AreaVibes gives it a 76 livability score, including an A+ for amenities. Housing here is pricier than the Atlanta average, with the median home valued at $384,300. Housing options range from smaller homes from the middle of the last century to infill houses built in the last two decades.
When to buy a house in Atlanta
The housing market in Atlanta tends to be seasonal. Houses usually go on the market in the spring, and buyers like to be moved in before school starts in early to mid-August.
For buyers, that means you must be ready to move fast if you’re looking for a house in the spring or summer. HomeLight research shows that Atlanta homes sell the fastest from April to August, cutting two to seven days off the yearly average time on the market. Houses also sell for a premium in June, when the average sales price is 7.58% above the annual average.
If you’re looking for a bargain, houses sell for 12.44% below the yearly average in February. Early in the year, homes sit on the market for nearly two weeks longer than the annual average, giving you more time to consider the purchase before you have to act.
Find a top buyer’s agent in Atlanta
In a hot market like Atlanta, it’s imperative to have a top buyer’s agent. The area has nearly 18,000 real estate agents, and working with a top agent can definitely save you money. The best Atlanta buyer’s agents get properties for up to 18% off list price on average, according to HomeLight research. At just over $44,000, that’ll buy you a lot of trips to the movie theater to watch Atlanta-filmed fare during your life as a homeowner!
New listings in Atlanta go under contract quickly, and Mahota says that top agents like her are willing to go above and beyond for their buyers, driving through neighborhoods and knocking on doors to find options for those clients.
The best agents are also familiar with the area, including the traffic and commuting issues that come with certain locations, and they can help steer you to the neighborhood that meets your needs.
Ready to start looking for a home in the ATL? Begin the search by locating a top buyer’s agent in Atlanta.
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