KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Knoxville isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of fabulous homes in a "Town & Country" setting.
East Tennessee's affordability, growing local affluence, an influx of wealthy out-of-towners and -- believe it or not -- COVID-19 are helping to drive a surge in the "dream home" market here in East Tennessee, experts say.
And when well-to-do buyers can't find exactly what they're looking for, they just build it themselves.
We're not talking about just a million-dollar home, which for many of us would be very fine indeed.
We're talking about mansions that start in the $4 million to $5 million range and climb from there -- homes with 8,000 square feet or more, a swimming pool, giant kitchen, fountains, quadruple-bay garages and stunning views of Fort Loudoun Lake or the Smoky Mountains.
The rate of home sales valued at at least $1 million in the Knoxville area has been steadily rising in recent years -- from 52 in 2015 to 508 in 2021, figures compiled by Hancen Sale of the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors show.
The homes are high-end, hidden and huge.
More people in our area are building and buying mega-homes that you traditionally associate with places like Nashville and Atlanta, said Sharon Bailey, a principal of the Realty Executives Associates firm who often works with some of the area's most prominent and wealthy people.
University of Tennessee coaches? She's represented a Who's Who of those folks. The executives leading our biggest area employers? She's certainly worked with them.
They expect privacy, discretion and a quality product, she said. At that price range, many are deciding to build their own, custom home.
"There's a difference in a $1 million to $2 million buyer versus a $5 million to $7 million buyer," Bailey said. "They've lived in a lot of houses to get to this point in their life -- most of them.
"They want privacy, for sure, and they want what they want: designers, architects, all of that, good builders, and we help with that because we're connected to those people."
They also want a high quality of life, something East Tennessee can offer in abundance.
'IT'S AN EASY SELL'
It isn't hard to sell lavish homes these days in the Knoxville area, said Bailey, who has more than four decades of experience and is known teasingly in some circles as the "Realtor to the Stars".
People looking to move here are drawn to the beauty of the region and its still relatively affordable cost of living. Knoxville stands up well, for example, against bigger neighbor Nashville, Bailey said.
She recently showed a sprawling three-level home off Keller Bend Road to a couple interested in moving here from Dallas. Knoxville was on their shortlist that included Asheville and Nashville.
The couple ruled out Nashville, even though they have family there, because of the Music City's traffic. And they weren't keen on Asheville.
But during their three or so days recently in Knoxville, they liked the feel of the place, the walkability of downtown, the friendliness of the locals, Bailey said.
"I'm selling Knoxville to a lot of these out-of-town people," she said. "You're selling Knoxville."
The Texans also really liked the house on Keller Bend, yet another example of a home that is up for sale but known only to a handful of realtors in the know. It's not listed. Homes at that price level almost always sell by word of mouth, Bailey said.
It's an example of the kind of mansion that's seen increasing sales in the area. It's got a swimming pool, a sweeping back yard that goes down to a dock along the lake, big open spaces, a home theater on the ground level, a huge master bedroom with its own patio, a four-car garage, a mother-in-law suite and an entranceway that includes a running water feature.
Bailey said many of Knoxville and Knox County's grander new homes can be found along what she calls "The Bends": Keller Bend, Lyons Bend, Tooles Bend Road and River Bend. They're out-of-the-way roads and neighborhoods along the water, a prime draw for big-time buyers.
WHO'S BUYING AND BUILDING?
California, Texas, New York and New Jersey are some of the most frequent places from which affluent buyers are moving to the area. They may be coming here to retire or to take a major position with a major employer such as a health care company or a government contractor.
Knox County Register of Deeds Nick McBride, whose office has processed a record amount of land transactions in recent years, said "the secret is out" about Knox County from a national perspective. When you move here you're moving to a great place, he said.
Outsiders coming in are able to sell their existing homes for a lot more than what they'd get here, McBride said, meaning they're able to buy bigger once they arrive in East Tennessee.
Bailey has worked with many well-known transplant sports figures, including University of Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, former coach Butch Jones, basketball coach Rick Barnes and current athletics director Danny White. She's also worked with the estate of coaching great Pat Summitt.
"All good people," she noted.
White, in fact, bought Jones' sprawling West Knox County home south of Northshore Drive, Bailey said.
It's a place the veteran realtor is very fond of. She said the Joneses made it inviting, a home where the coach could have many people over including football team members.
"Butch Jones' home was really special to me because it was warm," Bailey said.
Bailey also represents the buyers of the city's biggest mansion, the 40,000-square-foot Villa Collina on Lyons View Pike. It's going to be demolished in the coming months. The buyers plan to split the existing river-view land into three lots for houses.
Many of Bailey's local clients have been steadily moving up, changing price brackets on the climb to bigger and better, she said.
Unexpectedly, the veteran realtor noted, the coronavirus pandemic also has helped drive the luxury market.
More people started working from home when the virus hit, which meant they wanted more out of their homes. More space to spread out, more diversions.
COVID also made it clear that one didn't have to live in the same city as one's employer.
"Who would have thought how COVID would affect the world?" she said.
2020, she said, was the best year of her sales career, Bailey said.
Looking ahead, she thinks the current market for six-figure homes can't maintain its current pitch.
But she said she feels comfortable that the mega-house market here will remain steady going forward. It's a special niche.
"Never in my career would I have thought we would have this many upper-bracket homes as we have now," Bailey said.