September 25, 2012

Ocracoke Real Estate:
Finding and buying a home


I learned to swim in Silver Lake as a 9-year-old boy in 1956 when my family came for a vacation.  Silver Lake didn’t have bulkheads then. We walked across Silver Lake Road onto the beach just across from our cottage and swam from the docks there. 

Highway 12 didn’t exist, the ponies roamed free around our cottage, and we met the ferry on the beach, not at the Ferry Docks.  My best guess as to how we got there is that my father was in an Army Artillery group somewhere in the vicinity. 

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I made plans to camp on Ocracoke with our two children, but my wife heard about “mosquitoes as big as flies and flies as big as hummingbirds” and the camping trip was off.  As it turned out, the island was evacuated that year because of a hurricane. 

About five years ago, we made a deal -- a week in the Smokies and  a week on Ocracoke.  The Smokies were great, but within 24 hours of arriving on Ocracoke, my wife Trisha said, “I get it.”  She had fallen in love with Ocracoke on her first visit.  Like thousands of others, we began the annual trek from Columbus, Ohio, to spend a single week here.

Three years later we met with an agent at Lightship Realty while we were on the island attending the Ocrafolk School.   We thought we’d never find a house we’d like in the location we’d like and at a price we could afford. With our agent’s help --  and patience -- we learned quite a bit about  Ocracoke neighborhoods, types and styles of houses, and the dreaded price ranges. Sadly, nothing was available that met our criteria, so we returned to Ohio and planned our next vacation to Ocracoke. 

We cancelled our June 2010 vacation when our agent called us out of the blue in February with information on a house that would meet our needs. What luck that she had continued to keep an eye out for us and actually found a good fit. It was a house we had actually seen under construction during two of our visits to Ocracoke.

Within 24 hours and after quite a few phone calls, our agent arranged for us to make a verbal offer.  Much to our surprise, it was immediately countered at a reasonable price.  Again, long distance, our agent prepared a formal offer that was acceptable to the seller contingent on our actually coming to Ocracoke for a personal inspection of the property.  Needless to say, we came, we saw, we bought! 

We would never have had a chance at that property without the persistent checking of new houses coming on the market, quick action, and our agent’s knowledge of how to get through the offer process quickly and successfully.

Five weeks later, we returned to Ocracoke to do our inspection. We were shown the house and  property and began our education on living on a sandbar.  Coming from Ohio, we knew we’d have to give up a basement and an attached garage.  However, because we planned to rent the house for 2-3 years leading up to our retirement, there were a lot of things we didn’t know:

  • We discovered that we could not get financing without first having flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.  In addition to the normal homeowners’ insurance, we also had to get hurricane (wind and rain) insurance and renters’ insurance since we planned on renting out the house for a couple of years during the summer.
  • I investigated the tax issues of renting and the rules governing personal use of the house.  Even though I’m a CPA, these rules gave me a real headache.
  • There is no city sewage system on Ocracoke. Instead, we have a septic system which, as we found out, is a new-fangled and pretty sophisticated one that requires annual inspections. We learned that because the septic system occupies a portion of our back yard we could not drive or store boats in that area.  Also, we discovered that the septic field limited the space where we could expand the house, something we planned to do (and are doing) when we retired, which we have done.
  • Because we were renting that summer, we had to have the house scheduled for regular pest control treatments.  There are a number of pests, including cockroaches, termites, black widow spiders, and sugar ants to name a few.
  • While there are several places that can take care of most of your day-to-day needs, we found that trips off the island were inevitable and even fun.  As one local resident has since told us, getting supplies off island is like a TV prize show:  You take the ferry and drive up the Outer Banks about two hours, collect all the “prizes” you can in the limited time you have, and then scoot back down the islands in time to catch your ferry home.
  • We also learned that the home’s water supply was from a cistern and that many residents had been waiting 10 years for new “meters” (city water) to become available.  Because our plan was to rent the house for two to three years before we retired, the water supply was a big issue.  Since that time, a large number of new “meters” have become available and we went ahead with getting city water. However,  getting connected to city water put a $6,000 hole in our retirement budget. 
  • We learned all about the “mini-split” HVAC system in the house which involves having a centralized heat pump that powers individual heating/cooling units throughout the house.  Our house had three units, one in each bedroom and one in the living room and kitchen area.  As we found out, getting someone to service this system from off the island was pricey to say the least.  We’ve since discovered the local HVAC/licensed plumber, Bob Despo, and have come to rely on him.

With all the contacts she had around the island, our agent came to our rescue with the names of the island specialists who would take care of any septic issues, educated us on the pros and cons of our cistern, and offered alternatives to consider.  She was also immensely helpful in contacting a local source for financing, setting up the home inspection, suggesting an attorney to help us with the long distance closing, and generally greasing the process for us. 

She also held our hands while we waited in suspense for the federal government to re-institute the National Flood Insurance Program, which had been suspended for several months just about the time we applied for our loan.  To our relief, the program was revived and we were able to get flood insurance, which is a requirement to get a mortgage when you live on Ocracoke.  To our even greater joy, we have retired to Ocracoke and are loving getting know our neighbors and making friends.

Buying a house is a long and sometimes difficult process even when you are simply moving within the same city.  Long-distance buying is a bigger challenge.

Certainly, the first step is to spend some time on this lovely island and get to know some of the people who live here.  Renting a place is a perfect way to get started.  If you are considering buying a home to rent or to occupy on Ocracoke, you are well advised to contact one of the real estate professionals on the island.  They have information you don’t even know you need to know!

(Gary Davis wrote this guest column for regular Ocracoke real estate columnist B.J. Oelschlegel of Lightship Realty.)

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