November 13, 2019

New Residents Are Spending Big in Columbus

The Ohio capital is the fastest-growing Midwestern city, pushing up real-estate prices and spurring major transformations of traditional neighborhoods and historic properties

By Alina DizikNov. 7, 2019 11:49 am ET

Susan McManus and Ashley Lawson were confident they would get a great deal on a big home when they decided to relocate back to the Midwest after five years in Southern California.

It didn’t quite happen that way.

After a year of searching in Columbus, Ohio, they upped their target price by $500,000. Still, it was another 17 months before the couple closed on a four-bedroom, five-bathroom home in the historical German Village neighborhood—for $1.5 million. To win their home, they had to put in an offer the day the property went on the market.

Brett Kaufman in the Blue Room of his Bexley, Ohio, home. PHOTO: RYAN KURTZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“The million-dollar houses needed a bunch of work,” says Ms. McManus, a 49-year-old marketing executive. “I was shocked by how much prices had gone up.”

She and her partner, Ms. Lawson, 37, an attorney, then spent an additional $100,000 to remodel the nearly 5,000-square-foot American Foursquare overlooking Schiller Park. They wanted to preserve historic touches in the 1890s home, including wood paneling and stained glass.

Ohio’s capital, with a population approaching 900,000—2.1 million in the wider metropolitan area—is the fastest-growing urban area in the Midwest, says Aaron Renn, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who researches cities and urban policy. It also has been expanding physically, adding annexed areas to the city proper and to surrounding suburbs. Columbus proper was 224.7 square miles in 2019, compared with 143.5 square miles in 1970, according to city data on annexations.

“There’s a diversity in the types of places within the city limits,” Mr. Renn says, with some neighborhoods having a suburban feel.

The home office.

Brett Kaufman renovated a home in Bexley, a first-ring Columbus suburb.

Mr. Kaufman bought the home for $1.85 million in 2014, records show.

A living area in the Kaufman home. ‘We tried to make it feel vibrant and fun and contemporary—and a little bit eclectic,’ Mr. Kaufman says of the design.

A formal dining room in the home, which underwent an extensive renovation completed in 2018.

The Blue Room seating area at the front of the Kaufman home, where Mr. Kaufman lives with his family.

The modern kitchen features Carrara marble.

The pool area of the Bexley, Ohio, home.

Catherine and Bryan Williamson, both 34, with their 11-month-old daughter, Bianca. The couple bought a Victorian home to renovate in the Olde Towne East neighborhood of Columbus for $152,000 in 2017.

The exterior of the Williamson home in the Olde Town East neighborhood. The couple added modern landscaping design.

The living and kitchen area of the Williamson home includes vintage-style moldings. The couple spent $200,000 and nearly three years renovating the home.

The bedroom on the upper level of the Williamson home. The couple bought the home after being contacted by the previous owner via Instagram.

Susan McManus, 49, left, with her partner, Ashley Lawson, 37, and their dogs, Jack and Max, in their German Village home in the Ohio capital, where they moved after spending five years in California.

The exterior of the McManus-Lawson home. They paid $1.5 million for the home, built for a whiskey distiller in the 1890s.

The foyer has original wood paneling.

The living room.

The formal dining room. The couple spent $100,000 to remodel the nearly 5,000-square-foot American Foursquare overlooking Schiller Park.

Brady Konya, 47, in the dining area of his loft in the Short North neighborhood.

Mr. Konya and his husband, Kyle Boettcher, 37, renovated the commercial building to create a 3,000-square-foot home, plus a second-floor rental and commercial space on the first floor. They bought the building for $680,000 in 2008, helped secure a zoning change for the property, then spent nearly $1 million on a renovation.

The loft’s interior.

The renovation included putting metal cabinets and custom skylights in the kitchen.

  Brett Kaufman renovated a home in Bexley, a first-ring Columbus suburb.RYAN KURTZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL1 of 22

Today, Columbus proper is ranked the 14th-largest city in the U.S., according to census data. Midcareer professionals relocating for jobs at workplaces such as Nationwide, JPMorgan Chase, Cardinal Health and Nationwide Children’s Hospital tend to be looking for higher-end homes, says Kelly Cantwell, a local real-estate agent at Keller Williams Classic Properties. She says luxury homes in the city start at about $650,000.

Adding to the figures, more Ohio State University graduates are staying put in the city, relocating to newly available amenity-filled apartments, she adds.


In Franklin County, which includes Columbus, overall home sales increased 6.4% in September from a year earlier, while inventory declined 4.9%, according to MLS data from the Columbus Realtors. The average sales price jumped 5.6% for the year through September, compared with the January through September period in 2018. Areas directly surrounding downtown are seeing a steady flow of new construction to meet the demand.

More buyers are choosing luxury properties. In September 2019, 60 homes over $700,000 were sold, compared with 51 the same month in 2018, according to MLS data from Ms. Cantwell.

Areas with the fastest growth include downtown, German Village and the Short North in the city proper, she says, and the suburban areas of Dublin, Upper Arlington and Grandview Heights. Families are drawn to single-family homes in the suburbs, while empty-nesters are buying condos in walkable areas downtown or in the Short North, she says. German Village, with its large inventory of historic homes, commands the highest per-square-foot prices, about $300, she adds.

“The job growth in the urban areas is really extending the run,” says Mark Wagenbrenner, 52, president of Thrive Cos., a developer specializing in rehabbing neglected land. In some neighborhoods, buyers have seen their houses nearly double in value since 2015, which stimulates more buying, he adds.

But there are growing pains. Developers, including Mr. Wagenbrenner, worry about the inventory exceeding demand. And while neighborhoods are walkable, many don’t have sufficient public transportation. That means traffic congestion, particularly in dense corridors like High Street in the Short North, he says.

A couple from California bought this 1890s home in the German Village neighborhood for $1.5 million and spent an additional $100,000 on a remodel. PHOTO: RYAN KURTZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

After buying a run-down building for $680,000 in 2008 in the Short North, Brady Konya and his husband, Kyle Boettcher, worked with the city to rezone the warehouse area to include residential properties. Once that was successful, they took their time before starting a nearly $1 million project to transform the former buggy-storage space into a 3,000-square-foot condo, says Mr. Konya, 47, co-founder of the local Middle West Spirits distillery. Coming from Seattle, he was surprised by the affordability. “I sold my condo in Seattle and said, ‘Wow, we could buy a building,’ ” says Mr. Konya.

Inside the one-bedroom with two baths, they installed modern skylights, metal kitchen cabinets and a sliding garage door that functions as an oversize window. “We tried to be consistent with some of the aesthetics of the neighborhood,” adds Mr. Boettcher, 37.

Susan McManus and her partner, Ashley Lawson, with their pets, Jack and Max. PHOTO: RYAN KURTZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The two-story building includes another unit on the same floor and a commercial space downstairs. Rent payments from the property fully cover the mortgage, Mr. Konya adds.

The Short North, an area of about 20 blocks, plus the Italian Village, Victorian Village and Harrison West neighborhoods, has seen $1.6 billion in new construction since 2000, says Betsy Pandora, executive director at the Short North Alliance. Several two-bedroom penthouses in the area are on the market for more than $1 million, according to Redfin. This fall, two boutique hotels opened, the Graduate and the Moxy, that target younger visitors.

Empty-nesters are leaving their single-family suburban homes to find low-maintenance options closer to entertainment in the area, says Mr. Wagenbrenner, the developer. “Roof decks are the rage,” he adds.

Mr. Wagenbrenner is completing Jeffrey Park, a complex on a 41-acre former factory site in Italian Village, a former immigrant neighborhood. It will have about 1,000 rental apartments plus about 500 units that will be a mix of single-family homes, condos and townhouses. To appeal to older buyers, he offers elevators in some units.

House hunters are also heading to the city’s Arena district, where a $230 million soccer stadium for the Columbus Crew Soccer Club is under way. Parks Edge condominiums, completed last year by Nationwide Realty Investors, offers 151 condo and townhouse units for $700,000 to $900,000.

Mr. Wagenbrenner points to the banks of the city’s five major rivers as possible future development targets. He is working on Quarry Trails, a 600-acre mixed-use riverside project that is to include homes and public parks.

Nearby, the suburbs, including Dublin and New Albany, have big luxury homes and prices that often exceed those in the city proper, says Ms. Cantwell. The most expensive home in the Columbus area was a 7,387-square-foot Georgian-style five-bedroom that sold for $3.7 million in New Albany last year, according to MLS data provided by Ms. Cantwell. The largest home sold last year was a 10,200-square-foot home in Dublin that went for $2.2 million.

One couple, formerly of New York, bought a Victorian home in Olde Towne East for $152,000 and spent $200,000 on a renovation. PHOTO: AARON M. CONWAY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Families with school-age children tend to buy in the first-ring suburbs within interstate 270 in Bexley, Upper Arlington, Worthington and Grandview Heights, says developer Brett Kaufman, whose Gravity development in the growing Franklinton neighborhood includes rentals and a co-working space opened this year.

Last year, Mr. Kaufman, 44, remodeled his own 12,000-square-foot home in Bexley that he bought for his family for $1.85 million in 2014, public records show. The 1-acre property has tennis and basketball courts, a pool and a pool house—all invisible from the street. “You pull in and it’s not some wide ostentatious home—it is a little bit more subtle,” he says.

Catherine and Bryan Williamson, with their daughter, Bianca, in their renovated Olde Towne East home. PHOTO: AARON M. CONWAY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Inside, he added nearly 4,000 square feet to the original 1928 layout, including a recording studio and a gym built over a garage.

“It was a beautiful home, but very dated; it needed a lot of work,” says Mr. Kaufman who declined to share renovation costs. A similar updated home in the area would be valued at about $4 million, based on square footage data on the Redfin site.

Near downtown, an affordable stock of historical Victorian homes again are becoming a draw, following decades of disrepair.

Catherine and Bryan Williamson, both 34 and both interior designers, bought a vintage home in the Olde Towne East neighborhood for $152,000. They relocated to Columbus from New York in 2013 and purchased the home in 2017 after its previous owner contacted them via Instagram. He had been following them, says Ms. Williamson, and was looking for buyers who would keep the home’s original Victorian splendor.

The couple spent $200,000 on an interior and exterior renovation. They did most of the work themselves, keeping the original floors and layout, and using classic molding to create the feel of a Parisian apartment.

A former buggy-storage building in the Short North section was transformed into a mixed-use complex with two residential units over a ground-floor commercial space. PHOTO: AARON M CONWAY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Brady Konya, above, and his husband, Kyle Boettcher, bought the building for $680,000 in 2008 and spent nearly $1 million on the gut renovation. PHOTO: AARON M CONWAY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The renovation was completed this fall after nearly three years. “Seeing the momentum of this neighborhood,” Ms. Williamson says, “made us feel comfortable with going higher-end on our finishes and taking the extra time.”

Keeping OSU Students in Town

When students start at Ohio State University, they find their resident advisers—all 400 of them—are trained to tell them about the attractions and suggest activities in the city. The students also get discounted tickets to entertainment venues and special events in the capital.

The initiative, launched in 2014, is part of a broader effort to keep university students in town well after graduation. For one of the largest universities in the nation—enrollment is up to 68,262 this year—keeping talent within Columbus is increasingly important, says Tracy Stuck, assistant vice president of student life at OSU. After graduation, the students become an important source of talent for filling area jobs, says Ms. Stuck, and possible future contacts themselves for future job-seekers.

About 40% of students say they plan to live in Columbus after graduation, a number that has stayed steady since the university began tracking figures in 2014, she says.

Write to Alina Dizik at