It is really, really hard to buy your first house in Atlanta right now

Here are the stories of three first-time homebuyers who embarked on their house-hunting journey during one of the most challenging markets in recent history

It is really, really hard to buy your first house in Atlanta right now
When we ran this photo of a 1,054-square-foot Cabbagetown house as the cover of our April 2020 real estate issue, it was listed on the market for more than $580,000. More than a year later, Atlanta’s housing market remains tough for first-time buyers.

Photograph by Joshua Dudley Greer

For a lot of Atlantans, the pinnacle of the American dream is feeling more like a fantasy these days. In 2020, housing prices soared while inventory tanked. Compared to this time last year, according to Redfin, the median sales price of a home in Atlanta has increased by nearly 25 percent, while the number of homes selling above list price has increased by 120  percent. House-hunters, even those with ample budgets, found themselves in fierce competition with people willing to pay cash, skip inspections, or offer over-inflated prices. In the current market, the idea of paying list price, taking two weeks for a due diligence period, or even having a night or two to sleep on one of the biggest financial decisions of your life now seems quaint.

Atlanta realtor Sherri Fortson Bailey says that in the decade she’s been selling homes in the city, she’s never seen anything quite like it. “I’ve seen times when there were multiple offers on a home, but that meant like, three or four,” she says. Things are different now: Bailey recently sold a fixer-upper in Newnan for $15,000 over asking price; the winning offer was one of 19. A client of Bailey’s put in an offer on a midcentury modern house in Collier Heights that had never been updated and didn’t have air conditioning. “It had 85 offers, and we went $45,000 over asking,” she says. They didn’t win; the house ended up going for $95,000 over the list price.

Most people who have sought to buy a home in the last year have horror stories of bidding wars, houses going under contract the day they’re listed (or sooner), and trying to go up against other buyers who can fling cash around like it’s Monopoly money. But it’s even tougher for would-be first-time homeowners, who don’t already have a house of their own to sell and who often can’t even make use of homebuyer assistance programs, which could make an offer less competitive.

Listings in the $200,000-$400,000 range, says Bailey, see some of the steepest competition of all—would-be homebuyers are frequently going up against investors with deep pockets, lots of cash, and little concern for contract contingencies, like inspections or appraisals.

We spoke with three first-time homebuyers who embarked on their house-hunting journey during one of the most challenging markets in recent history:

Courtney Jo Greathouse, 31
Finally closed on a home in East Atlanta after seven months of searching for a house under $300,000 for her and her 8-year-old son. Her main criteria was to stay in APS.

Courtney Jo Greathouse moved to Atlanta five years ago as an Americorps member and settled into a rental on Edgewood Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward. “I [didn’t realize] I was establishing my life in an area I wouldn’t be able to afford a few years later,” she says. Ready to move on from her rental, Greathouse set out to find a starter home under $300,000. Her only location preference was that the house be inside Atlanta city limits, so that her 8-year-old son, who has attended the same school since pre-K, could stay in the APS school system. “[Buying] anywhere near Inman Park is completely out of the question for me,” she says. “I’m essentially like, I can pay a whole bunch of money to stay where we built our lives, or I can move 30 minutes away. As a single parent, moving 30 minutes away from the community we’ve built just wasn’t a sacrifice I was willing to make.”

Greathouse started her search in December 2020, but quickly saw how limited the city’s inventory was. “Every week I was seeing fewer than 5 houses show up [on MLS] in my price range and in my radius.” Seven months and three offers later, she did eventually find a house in East Atlanta. “The only reason I got the house I got was because it just wasn’t attractive to a lot of people immediately,” she say —in addition to its small size at less than a thousand square feet, Greathouse suspects that the house’s dated appliances, a master bath in need of replacement, and in-kitchen washer/dryer were the main reasons why she was the only one to put in an offer in the first few days.

One of the most frustrating aspects of her house-hunting journey wasn’t the cash offers, the absurdly compressed timelines, or the bidding wars: it was that, because Greathouse was competing with all of the above, she felt it was unrealistic to use first-time homebuyer grants, which would add extra due diligence time to her offers and potentially make them less attractive to a seller raking in multiple offers.

“There are so many barriers to entering the market as a first-time buyer . . . you can’t use the things that are supposed to be there to help you get in, and you don’t have the capital of another house that’s selling for an inflated price,” she says. “It’s next to impossible. It’s absurdly unsustainable. It’s hard to believe that this is where we’re at.”

For Greathouse, it isn’t just the invisible forces of the market that are to blame, either. “I can’t help but get frustrated by how it feels like the sellers are complicit in this system,” she says. “It just seems that they’re racing to the top of the profit margin, and buyers are racing to the bottom. But with Atlanta’s background, it fits. We’re kind of shirking, in a big way, individual responsibility: like, Well, this is what the market is, so I’m going to cash in.

Laurie McGowan, 32
Searched for over a year, focusing on a wide swath of southside intown neighborhoods from East Atlanta to Westview. Budget started at $250,000 and ended up at $370,000.

After being priced out of their own rental in Inman Park, Laurie McGowan and her partner spent an entire calendar year trying to purchase a home, from March 2020 to this past April—“and I can honestly say it’s been awful,” she adds. With each failed offer, the couple nudged their $250,000 budget higher and higher, and watched as prices—and in turn, their own offers—seemed to rise month after month. “It was insane that we were offering $15k, $25k, $50k and, at one time, $70k over, and still losing,” McGowan says. “Most of the time, we were competing against cash investors or people who were able to waive all contingencies.” By the time they actually bought a home, their budget had jumped by nearly 50 percent to $370,000.

Then, there were the houses themselves. One in the West End was missing floors in two rooms (a flaw that was conveniently left out of the real estate photography showcased on Zillow). It was listed at $350,000. Another in East Atlanta Village had a shoddily homemade “laundry room” powered by a single extension cord running through puddles of water beneath the house. It was listed for $350,000. The most heartbreaking experience involved a house that a friend’s neighbor shared with McGowan before it was listed. “I thought that this was it, this is our in,” she says. They toured the house, expressed their interest, and told the listing agent that they’d get an offer in by end of day. They offered $40k over asking price, but four days passed without any response from the agent. “Then I woke up, checked Redfin like I usually do the second I wake up, and boom—it had been listed publicly at our offer price,” says McGowan. “Basically, we were used for pricing research. I actually cried that day right before going into work. I was so exhausted from this whole experience and this was just the rotten cherry on top.”

The couple continued their search, but every offer “felt like throwing leaves in the wind.” McGowan says she lost count of how many offers they made over the course of their hunt, but estimates it’s probably close to 20. Finally, in May, the couple succeeded and finally closed on a house in East Atlanta. The house “needs a lot of work,” McGowan says, including a total kitchen renovation and landscaping, but McGowan says they were willing to compromise since the market only appeared to be getting worse for buyers.

“I can’t tell you how we did it, I’d lost hope and was prepared for it to go highest and best and us to get outbid for the millionth time,” she says. Rather than excitement, McGowan mostly feels relief—and exhaustion. “I’m so glad to finally be done with this whole experience and to put it behind me,” she says. “I can honestly say it hurt my mental health.”

Savannah West, 25
Originally hoped to settle down in Southwest Atlanta for $170,000, but after making 15 different offers on homes, often competing with cash offers, she closed on a house in Douglasville for $205,000.

Not long after Savannah West met her partner, Dante, the couple started making plans: buy a house, get married, start a family. But when they started looking for homes earlier this year with a $170,000 budget, it quickly became apparent that Step One in the plan wouldn’t be as romantic and exciting as they’d both hoped.

“We’d saved up all this money, and thought, Wow, with all this money we have saved, we’re going to be able to get a house and do some renovations—get real HGTV with it,” says West. “This process is supposed to be an enjoyable, romantic moment, and it’s turned into a competitive money war.”

West, a Clark Atlanta alumnus, had originally hoped to settle down somewhere in Southwest Atlanta. A quick peek at Zillow, though, revealed what she calls “two different Atlantas” in that part of town: expensive flips and new-construction houses right next to decrepit vacant homes. Since starting the search this past February, West and her partner saw more than 20 homes in-person, made 15 different offers, and expanded their radius. Even with offering $10-$15k over asking price for some houses, and in some cases including an appraisal gap clause in their offer, they were regularly bested by bidders who waved inspections, paid in cash, offered tens of thousands of dollars more than asking price, or some combination of all of the above. Meanwhile, listing agents often didn’t even respond to West’s offers—in a few cases, she found out that their offer had been rejected only after seeing the house marked as “pending” on Zillow. “My realtor said she’d never seen anything like this,” West says.

Meanwhile, she adds, every month of renting brought another month of spending money that could otherwise go toward a down payment on their future home. “I just want to get this house so we can turn the page and move on with our lives,” she told me in July. “It feels like life is almost on pause right now.”

But finally, in August, West went under contract and closed on a house. Both their location preferences and their budget had to change—the house is in Douglasville, and their budget inched up from $170,000 to $205,000. But, West adds, the house is on nearly an acre of land, and she was surprised to realize she actually preferred the area. “Once we realized we wanted to be in a quiet, suburban area with plenty of shopping and a lot of land, we knew the city of Atlanta was out of our budget, so we ventured out and found the perfect place for us,” she says.