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Kiawah Island Is One of America’s ‘Hot Tamale’ Housing Markets – Mansion Global

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Live oaks draped in Spanish moss, miles of pristine Atlantic shoreline, and marsh grasses that turn golden in the winter and verdant green in the heat of summer: This is Kiawah Island, the charming, exclusive enclave outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

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A world-class destination for golf, with seven private and public courses, Kiawah is a no-brainer for enthusiasts of the sport. For those who don’t partake, it offers an escape into the natural world with its south-facing beaches, more than 30 miles of walking and biking trails, and a master plan that prizes upholding the natural surroundings.

“When you cross the little bridge over the Kiawah River, it’s like somebody swooped down and took away all your cares and problems,” said Pam Harrington of local real estate firm Pam Harrington Exclusives. “It’s just a really, really special place.”

Boundaries

About 21 miles south of Charleston, Kiawah is a roughly 13-square-mile barrier island with beachfront and marsh vistas aplenty. The Kiawah Island Parkway is the main road into and out of town, and crosses over the Kiawah River that creates the island’s north border from the mainland. 

The island’s positioning, with its beach frontage facing south rather than east like many barrier islands along the Atlantic, is a boon.  

“We refer to it as the Kiawah bubble,” said Dan Whalen, president of Kiawah Island Real Estate, which handles about 80% of transactions on the island. When it comes to dodging major storms and their damage, “we’ve been very, very blessed,” Whalen said.

Price Range

Homes on Kiawah range from smaller condo-like dwellings referred to as villas to sprawling single-family homes.

“From the low-end standpoint, as far as the villas are concerned, we have small one-bedroom efficiencies that are in the high $400,000 range,” said Danielle Whitson, a real-estate agent with KIRE. “And then we run the gamut all the way up to single-family homes that top out just under $19 million.”

This home on Eugenia Avenue is asking $13.99 million.


Kiawah Island Real Estate

Of the roughly 140 island properties listed on Redfin, prices reflect what Whitson said with some developable lots asking in the mid-$400,000s. The most expensive home on the market right now is an 8,400-square-foot home built in 2020 with five bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, and ocean views. It’s asking $18.7 million, down from $20.8 million.

Pricing on Kiawah Island has risen steadily since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019 the median price point was $1.2 million, in 2021 it was up to $2 million and by the end of 2023, it was $3 million, Whalen said.

Housing Stock

Kiawah’s residential development began in earnest in the mid-1970s, when the island was purchased by the Kuwaiti Investment Company for $17 million. It was the KIC that created the master plan for the island, said Harrington. 

Even though the island has changed hands several times since, with South Street Partners acquiring master developer Kiawah Partners in 2013, everyone has continued to follow the 1970s master plan. As such, the island’s housing stock is none too old and honors the master plan’s commitment to preserving the island’s natural beauty. 

The island’s Architectural Review Board ensures homes maintain the island’s natural beauty.


Kiawah Island Real Estate

“When you drive down the main parkways, you don’t get any feeling of habitation,” said Harrington. “You see beautiful trees and flowers. It’s just a heavenly place to be.”

The island’s Architectural Review Board makes sure homes meet the standards set for maintaining not only the island’s natural beauty but also the integrity of its seven golf courses. 

“We’re really mindful about positioning of pools, height of those pools, how they incorporate with the back of the house, to make sure that there’s not an impediment to the golf course experience,” Whitson said.

The island’s homes tend to lean toward the Lowcountry southern style, with “a lot of cedar shake siding, cedar shake roofs and large columns,” Whalen said. “But over the years we’ve started to see some other architecture work its way onto the island. Right now, contemporary architecture is quite prevalent on the far east end in a neighborhood called Ocean Park.”

What Makes It Unique

Sure, people come to Kiawah for its 10 pristine miles of Atlantic Coast shoreline and 30 miles of biking and walking trails, but the real crown jewels are the seven private and public golf courses, and their associated amenities, that canvas the land.

Homes with a view of the island’s marshes are coveted.


Kiawah Island Real Estate

Among those courses are the Tom Watson-designed Cassique and the Tom Fazio-designed River Course, both exclusive to Kiawah Island Club members and their guests. The five additional courses operated by Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which is a separate entity from the Kiawah Island Club, are open to the public.

In addition to soaking in the scenery while walking and biking, Harrington said home buyers prize views of the island’s marshes. 

“These are very long, beautiful views and you look over several bodies of water, potentially,” she said. “A lot of people who start on the ocean end up reverting to the marsh because the ocean’s lovely, but it is what it is. Whereas with the marsh, the colors and the bird life are ever-changing.”

Luxury Amenities

A membership to the Kiawah Island Club is the ultimate amenity here, but it can’t be simply purchased. 

Memberships are acquired by purchasing a previously unsold homesite or a resale property from a Kiawah Island Club member who’s offering their membership with the home sale.

There are three tiers of club membership: social, sports (which requires members to pay a greens fee) and golf (which includes the greens fee). Members pay an initial deposit of $85,000, $125,000 and $150,000, respectively, with varying monthly dues.

Members who opt out of their membership get 50% of their initial deposit back, but should be mindful that whether a for-sale property is or is not being offered with a club membership can seriously impact the selling price.

“It has a significant bearing,” Whitson said, adding that trading without a membership can bring the price of a property down “anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000.”

The island has seven golf courses.


Kiawah Island Real Estate

In addition to golf course access, membership comes with entry to a beach club designed by the vaunted Robert A.M. Stern Architects, a boat concierge that will manage the maintenance and docking of members’ vessels, and a 10,000-square-foot spa and salon, among many other perks.

There are plenty of ways for those who don’t have a club membership to enjoy the island, too, including a visit to the Sanctuary, a luxury beach resort hotel with a spa and high-end dining and shopping.

Who Lives There

Kiawah is home to about 2,000 people with a median income of $214,250 and a 31% employment rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population swells in the peak season to about 11,000, according to Whalen.

Whitson said those who live on and visit the island run the gamut. “You’ve got everything from young families to full-time owners who are retired empty-nesters and who are enjoying their children bringing their grandchildren to the island,” Whitson said. “It’s a generational community, it’s all about family.”

A homesite on Kiawah’s Little Eagle Island is on the market for $2.149 million.


Kiawah Island Real Estate

Notable Residents

Former Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley is one of the island’s better-known residents. Whitson said other political figures and some notable retired sports players also live on the island, though she wouldn’t name them.

“What’s really nice about Kiawah is you come here to get away from all that,” she added.

Outlook

Like in many communities with abundant access to outdoor amenities, Kiawah real estate saw a huge boost during the pandemic.

“Values have gone up considerably in the last three years. Our market was a real hot tamale,” Harrington said. “Once something got listed you’d have multiple offers. We’re still somewhat in that market, but things have slowed down a bit.”

Harrington noted that in 2019 there were enough homes on the market to satiate buyers for three years, but the pandemic rush wiped that out and the number of homes on the market remain low and are still selling, keeping prices high.

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