The competition for new houses is in-tents
A Charlotte Realtor camps out for 4 days to buy a pair of new $400K homes in Gaston County; neighbors are used to overnight guests
Charlotte Realtor Matthew Johnson is in the middle of a four-night campout in the Overlake portion of the McLean neighborhood in Belmont, where Empire Homes will release two new home lots on Saturday. The builder has a first-come, first-served policy, so Johnson arrived at the model on Tuesday to be sure he’d be first in line. He can’t leave the area until Saturday or he could lose his spot.
by Cristina Bolling
The afternoon sun is streaming over the “Ellington” model home in the McLean community in Belmont on Wednesday, and Charlotte Realtor Matthew Johnson is sitting out front on a camping chair, logging hour 27 of what will be a 96-hour campout to score two clients new homes.
Last week, he got wind that Empire Homes will release two lots for sale on Saturday morning at 11 a.m., and he knew there were at least 20 serious potential buyers. So on Tuesday — a full four days early — he put his tent and 0 degree sleeping bag in his SUV and packed the hatch neatly with 6 gallons of water, a folding chair and plenty of provisions so he could be first in line.
His bathroom solution is a construction-site portable toilet down the street. This morning, he had to wait for a banana to thaw before he could eat it for breakfast.
To hear Johnson talk about it, this feels like one of those wild giveaway contests where companies see how far fans will go to win a free prize.
But this is just how nuts Charlotte’s housing market remains these days.
It’s been that way for about the last year, as low inventory and high demand have brought about some phenomena even veteran agents say they’ve never seen before: buyers making huge offers and writing five-figure checks for non-refundable due-diligence fees, sellers making outrageous demands and agents racing to line up showings and write contracts before a competitor beats them to it.
The 16-county Charlotte region that encompasses the Gaston County neighborhood where Johnson is camping out posted a paltry 0.6-month supply of housing inventory in December, according to the most recent data from Canopy Realtor Association. That’s far below the 5- or 6-month standard that’s typically considered a balanced market.
Housing inventory across the region fell 40% year-over-year to 3,041 homes for sale, compared with the 5,097 homes on the market in December 2020.
Numbers tell a part of the story, but seeing someone like Johnson — forgoing his soft bed and warm shower to sleep on the cold hard ground for four days to make two purchases of homes in the low-to-mid $400,000 range — shows how this wild market is playing out.
“I’ve had one person say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I had to think about it for a second,” said Johnson, who’s single with no kids. “I’ve got the means and the ability to withstand cold and be solo for a few days to help my clients.”
Camping chairs a common sight: Johnson, 44, made the switch to real estate from a career in sales and recruiting for the IT staffing and consulting industry at the start of the pandemic and earned his real estate license in September 2020. He closed so many transactions in his first 12 months with eXp Realty (21, to be exact) that he was named the Canopy Realtor Association’s 2021 Vane Mingle Rookie of the Year in December.
He’s a three-time Ironman, an avid triathlete and an experienced camper who doesn’t shy away from discomfort, so once he had two investment buyers ready to pull the trigger in the McLean neighborhood, he decided he’d do whatever it takes. He’s already helped clients buy four new homes in the neighborhood, once arriving at 3 a.m. to score one of three lots that were opening up.
As Johnson sits in his camping chair and chats with a reporter, neighborhood residents MaryLu Cinque and her husband, Joe Tessoun, come up to him during their afternoon walk. Johnson doesn’t need to explain what he’s doing — they already know.
“It’s been a popular thing here. Whenever we see the chairs go up, we know that Empire is releasing lots,” Cinque says.
It’s been a few months since people have put out chairs or camped while waiting for homes, Cinque says; it was more common over the spring and summer.
“Even some of the neighbors were paid by agents to stay overnight to keep the spots,” Cinque said.
Johnson said he knows of one Realtor who once paid an out-of-work stranger she found on Craigslist $25 an hour to sit vigil for four nights to hold a spot in line for a home. “The guy made two grand,” he said.
Since he’s been here, Johnson’s presence has ruffled the feathers of some Realtors and prospective buyers who’ve shown up and learned that he’s buying both of the lots that are opening up on Saturday. Some don’t like the fact that the builder allows people to camp out instead of using a lottery system or selling homes to the highest bidder.
On Wednesday night, Johnson said he noticed a man sleeping in his car by the model home, and when he talked to the man’s wife on Thursday morning when she came to relieve him, she told him that their Realtor had (incorrectly) told them that Empire would be releasing all their lots on Saturday. The pair left disappointed.
‘I can’t be everywhere’: As he passes the time, Johnson toggles between his camping chair (onto which he’s taped a 8 ½ by 11 inch piece of paper with his name and “Lot 157 & Lot 159” written on it) and his car, where he runs his business via his laptop and cellphone. He periodically ducks into the model home to plug in a portable charging brick to power his devices.
The Wi-Fi is weak here so he can’t send email attachments, but he’s able to carry on with most of his business. Except, of course, showing homes.
The second he pulled in to camp out on Tuesday, he says, one of his other buyers sent him a text asking to see five homes that had just hit the market.
“We’re going to go Sunday to see as many as possible, but already three of those (the buyer wanted to see) went under contract within a day,” he said. “I’m missing things like that. I can’t be everywhere.”
Johnson says he wishes the market wasn’t as frenetic as it is.
“A lot of folks will say, ‘You got into it at a great time,’ and a lot of folks believe if you’re in real estate right now you’re making a lot of money,” he says. “Some are, but it’s so competitive. If you’re not really humping it on the buy-side, you’re not.”
A real estate career has turned out to be harder than he imagined it would be. But he says he doesn’t regret the switch. “I told my mom I wish I’d gotten into it sooner,” he says.
Another vastly different wish he has right now? For a mobile shower in his arsenal of camping gear — one that will warm the water by plugging into a car’s power outlet.
Johnson says he already feels bad for the sales agent who’ll no doubt be grateful for social distancing when it’s time for him to walk in her office to make the sales transactions on Saturday morning.
“It’s weird that I used to sit in an office and lead sales teams on conference calls,” Johnson says, “and now I’m camping four nights in the cold for a living.”
Cristina Bolling is managing editor of The Ledger: email@example.com
Realtor Matthew Johnson, on Instagram: “The view from behind my tent last night. … This might have been one of the crazier things I’ve done. We’ll see. I think it was the great Ricky Bobby who said, ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.’ That guy was onto something.”
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