Chattanooga real estate agent Linda Brock spent a late-April day showing waterfront homes to clients who had journeyed from Omaha, Nebraska.
"They've made a conscious decision to relocate to Chattanooga," Brock says. "The mantra for that day was that I was trying to give them hope."
They all knew there would be no deal that day, though, because every home on their list was already under contract.
"There's not enough waterfront inventory to satisfy the number of capable buyers in Chattanooga, to say nothing of potential buyers from out of town," Brock says. "Now they have an understanding of what the market is like."
Citing statistics from the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors, Brock says 124 waterfront properties, ranging in price from $500,000 to $4.25 million, sold in Hamilton County from May 1, 2019, to May 1, 2021.
"No ponds or community lakes," she says. "We're talking about frontage on water from the Tennessee River."
As of May 1 this year, Brock says, there were only four of those $500,000-and-up waterfront properties active on the association's Multiple Listing Service.
"I spend as much time apologizing as anything else, because I just don't have anything to show people," Brock says. "The waterfront market is on fire."
The COVID-19 pandemic has acted on that fire like an accelerant, says Chattanooga real estate agent Mark Hite.
"We've seen an extreme surge in the last 14 months in desirability for waterfront living," Hite says. "With COVID, people aren't traveling. They want staycations. Boat dealers up and down Highway 58 are emptied out. Camping World sets a new monthly sales record every month.
"People want to stay home and enjoy a vacation lifestyle on the water," says Hite, who adds that basic economic rules are in play, as well.
"There are two consumers of waterfront property," he says. "One is the traditional buyer of a primary home, while the other is looking for a second home, a summer home. The double appeal makes desirability, and the cost to acquire, even more."
James Perry, a veteran of 32 years in the Chattanooga-area real estate market, says Chattanooga's downtown riverfront also sports a "cool factor" that gets the attention of visitors.
"To have a downtown with docks, where you can tie up your boat and walk right into the middle of downtown – talk about a cool factor," he says. "I took it for granted, having been born and raised here, but I've met people from Seattle and Palm Springs who've seen how much Chattanooga has to offer," Perry says.
Ryan May of Real Estate Partners says that while many of his clients prefer to be on a lake, "river life has kind of come into its own in the last five years." He cites Cameron Harbor, the downtown Chattanooga riverfront development launched by his mother, Darlene Brown, and her husband, Buck Schimpf.
Brown says she had mixed feelings when she and Schimpf bought the downtown riverfront property in the mid-2000s.
"His dream was to get a marina down there," Brown recalls. "I was very nervous. It was the middle of nowhere. Nobody wants to live where nobody lives."
Then the Great Recession and other delays stalled the project, Brown says. She recalls that it took four or five years to finish Cameron Harbor's first five units, which went for $1.2 million each in 2016. She says phase 2 – four more units at $1.3 million each – was "not nearly as hard." The five phase 3 units "sold in a month to six weeks," she says, for $1.4 million to $1.45 million.
"Phase 3 was unbelievable," she says. "The market is just so hot.
"It took a long time to get where we are today," Brown says. "We had to get through some uncertainty and red tape. It took some time and some faith on people's parts that [Cameron Harbor] would be the great place it is now."
Perry says Chattanooga boasts a variety of types of waterfront property.
"Soddy Lake is nice and big," he says. "The Tennessee River Gorge is so unique, so beautiful. Possum Creek is a nice, big spring-fed body of water, and Wolftever has lots of houses, restaurants and marinas. Harrison Bay State Park is awesome – families will take their bikes, boat up to the park and then ride through it.
"Waterfront gives families so much – every member of a family. The grandparents might not wakeboard, but they'll enjoy fishing with the grandkids. It covers young to middle-aged to seasoned, summer cookouts to Christmas. It's a gathering place," he says.
Bryan Marshall, an Atlanta business owner who set his sights on a Chattanooga waterfront home years ago.
"A couple of things led me here," he says. "Our company has a facility in Dalton, and I got to where I was making the occasional sales call in Chattanooga. I found everyone was unusually friendly.
"And Chattanooga has the [Chickamauga] lake. My parents had a lake home, and I thought that if I had an opportunity to buy a second home, I wanted it to be on a lake. Chattanooga became the obvious spot," he says.
Marshall wound up doing more than just buying and building on a 3.5-acre parcel – he's changed his life, to the extent that he's sold his 10,000-square-foot home in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta and is in the process of making Harrison his primary residence with his wife, Angie. He also recently bought three more waterfront acres adjacent to his property.
"For 50 years, I lived in the same ZIP code in Atlanta," he says. "For me to make this kind of move is kind of a big deal, but I love Tennessee. I don't ever plan on going anywhere else."
And that, Perry says, makes Marshall's buy not only the attainment of a goal but an investment that would have to soften to be merely rock-solid.
"I've always preached that waterfront real estate is the best investment Chattanooga has to offer," Perry says. "It's almost bulletproof. Appreciation is greater and it's less volatile. You might have to hang in there to get your price in a down market, but values don't go down," he says.
"We've always been a hidden treasure," Perry says, "but Chattanooga's on the map now."
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