Realtor Justin Winter Details The Lure Of South Carolina’s Lakeside Living

A stone trail leading to a gazebo on the water with trees on both sides.
Clouds and the setting sun paint the sky over 18,500-acre Lake Keowee in South Carolina. (Justin Winter & Associates)

A rising star of the Deep South has emerged—and it’s not Atlanta, according to domestic migration statistics. South Carolina’s population growth has outpaced most of the United States in recent years, and the state tops all others in the number of arrivals vs. departures.

Bisected by the Appalachian Mountains and Blue Ridge Mountains, the Palmetto State exists in a climate sweet spot—not too hot and not too cold. The news gets better: The cost of living is 11.5% lower than the national average; there’s a breadth of outdoor activities amid mountains and lakes; tech, aerospace, and manufacturing sectors are surging; and housing costs are lower.

An overhead view of several big houses on lake Keowee.

Covered boat docks are a common sight at waterfront homes in The Reserve at Lake Keowee. (Justin Winter & Associates)

The luxury housing market includes grand timber and stone homes set around upstate mountain lakes. Chief among them is 18,500-acre Lake Keowee in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, its crystalline waters wreathed by pine and hardwood forests. Realtor Justin Winter and his 19-member team have long dominated the region with a market share approaching 60% in some areas. All told, Winter has sold more than $1 billion in real estate since 2009. His firm, Justin Winter & Associates, recently became a member of Forbes Global Properties.

We reached Winter as he surveyed a potential listing: a vacant lot on a ridgeline overlooking Lake Keowee.

Describe your view for us.

I’m looking at the southeastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains as the sun’s setting with the wind rustling through the trees. I can see the lake and also beautifully layered mountains. The grounds are bathed in native mountain laurel so, in May, this lot will be covered in pink or white flowers. Stretching out before me are stands of long and short needle pines and hardwoods. Back in the 1700s, the Cherokee Nation inhabited this entire area. They loved the fresh water, mild four-season climate and abundant forest and game. It was their sacred ground.

Justin Winter

Justin Winter of South Carolina-based Justin Winter & Associates has sold more than $1 billion in real estate since 2009. (Justin Winter & Associates)

You specialize in lake and mountain amenity communities, notably the Cliffs communities: at Keowee Vineyards, Keowee Falls, and Keowee Springs, along with The Reserve at Lake Keowee.

These are world-class gated communities with signature Jack Nicklaus- and Tom Fazio-designed golf courses. They have clubhouses, wellness and fitness centers, marinas, restaurants, markets, parks and trails. They were developed in the late 1990s through around 2005, so they’re very young communities.

Based in Los Angeles, we’re a bit startled at the home prices—a true bargain.

It’s interesting you say that because my wife and I have been property owners here for 24 years, and we’ve always asked each other, “When are people going to discover this place? When are the prices going to reflect the beauty of this place?” It’s been a bargain and it still is a bargain.

Please give us a price range for both vacant lots and homes.

Lake or mountain view off-water lots range from $30,000 to half a million dollars. Lakefront lots start at about half a million and go up to $3.5 million. Off-water homes range from about $1.25 million to $2.5 million. Waterfront homes range from about $2 million to $6 million. These are in the amenity communities on the north end of the lake. About 20% of the inventory in these communities is lakefront. The rest is woodland, golf course or lake and mountain view property.

An overhead view of Lake Keowee and with some of the houses and expanses of trees on the other side.

Waterfront homes in the area can range from $2 to $6 million. (Justin Winter & Associates)

We understand that the inventory is at a historic low.

The lake’s been around for 50 years (the man-made reservoir dates to 1971), and so the inventory has been depleted significantly. It’s really hard to find good quality waterfront on this lake anymore. People are now turning to off-water homes. The pandemic shone a spotlight on the southeast. People ratcheted up their retirement plans. Everybody wanted to come and nobody wanted to leave. The average number of homes for sale on the entire lake during the past few years has dropped to 20 or 30. It used to be 300 to 400. The inventory of waterfront homes is about 10%-15% of what it’s been historically.

I’m sure your own vacant lots are prized: a waterfront parcel in the Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards and a mountain view property at the Reserve at Lake Keowee.

Owning those properties, I have the ability to buy membership in the clubs. That’s important because I sell a lot of property in these communities. So I know the design guidelines and the restrictive covenants intimately. And I sit on the board of directors for the homeowner’s association at the Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards. We also dock our boat, a MasterCraft X35, at our lot at Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards. Besides using it for recreation, I take clients out on it to show them property.

A body of water with a bridge going over it and a large estate behind a row of trees.

Among Justin Winter & Associates listings is a $5.95-million waterfront home at The Reserve at Lake Keowee. (Justin Winter & Associates)

In 2018, you expanded your market area to include other lake communities, as well as Greenville (population 72,000), a 45-minute drive from Lake Keowee.

Greenville is also a very tight market. Over the last few years, prices have risen dramatically and supply hasn’t kept up with demand. Mayor Knox [White] and the city council have done a tremendous job developing the city. It has a very young vibe. The main street has about 60 restaurants and, on regular nights, they close it so people can walk it and enjoy live music. Currently, about 75% of our market is in amenity communities and 25% is located elsewhere.

Please describe your buyer demographic.

People move into this area to retire or relocate. Illinois sends us more full-time residents than any other state. Also, people come from Minnesota, Wisconsin—retirees wanting to get out of the winter. We’re drawing from Texas, and specifically Houston: those who want to escape the congestion, heat and humidity. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina send us the highest percentage of part-time homeowners.

A big house with green bushes in front of it and a stone trail that surrounds it.

The custom-built home under contract on Palmer Way sits on a lot that slopes to the water. (Justin Winter & Associates)

Describe a recent noteworthy sale.

I put 408 Palmer Way under contract this morning, a property at the Reserve at Lake Keowee. It’s a spectacular architecturally designed, custom-built lake residence, listed for $5.95 million. Built in 2015, it has old European charm, designed by a talented Greenville architect, Brad Wright. It’s on a gently sloping lot with easy access to the dock and shoreline with one of the nicest natural sand beaches on the north end. The great room has 20-foot vaulted ceilings with elevated lake views. There’s hand-forged ironwork, Venetian plaster walls, coffered and beamed ceilings, full stone arches, fireplaces, a lift-operated chandelier, and much more.

The home is a true mountain classic—are many designed with a similar look?

The predominant architectural style is craftsman, which some call “mountain lake.” There’s cut stone on the exterior, wood siding and a lot of wood treatments on the interior: wood beams, nickel gap paneling or shiplap. But over the last five years, a “mountain modern” or “transitional” look has appeared, which brings more light in through glass. It forgoes some of the heavier and darker interior colors and treatments.

A lake at dusk with the colors of the setting sun reflected onto it.

A view of Lake Keowee under a setting sun. (Shutterstock, Patrick Jennings)

Your firm holds numerous sales records for the highest-priced homes sold in the amenity communities. Please share your success strategy.

Knowing the land, the location and the communities, and having tremendous relationships with our clients who often become our friends. I say to people: you know, we don’t go out every day and try to sell real estate. We introduce people to our lifestyle and, if they like it—and there’s a lot to like—then they want to buy property. We’re very low-pressure people. We love this area and have no problem sharing our passion for this land.


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