Opportunity Knocks

What's the hardest part about finding the perfect home for your growing family in Northwest Arkansas?

Photography by Sara Blancett

opportunity

There might just be too many to choose from—too many nice neighborhoods, too many planned subdivisions with new homes and amenities like swimming pools and golf courses and clubhouses, all of which are designed to attract the many young families who move to the area to work for Walmart or one of the area’s other major employers. The Schneiders—Mark and Tina, as well as their 7-year-old son, Lucas, and 4-year-old daughter, Gabrielle—are one of those young families. Mark works for a Walmart supplier, and the couple moved to Rogers almost eight years ago from Charlotte, N.C., when Tina was pregnant with Lucas. The couple bought an older home in Bentonville, but seven years and two active kids later, their lifestyle necessitated a change of pace.“Once we had children we realized, ‘OK, this neighborhood has no pool, no playground, nothing,’” she says. “So we started to look for something that was in a nice, safe neighborhood with amenities.”They settled on Shadow Valley, a large-scale, gated subdivision of stately brick-and-stone homes, because it had those kinds of extras—a golf course, a clubhouse with a restaurant and childcare services, jogging trails, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a fitness center and plenty of potential playmates for Lucas and Gabrielle.

“Even after we pick up the kids from school or day care, we can go up to the pool for an hour,” Tina says. “Before, our option was a public pool, and it wasn’t really doable to do that in the evenings. Here, we can golf three holes at night if we want to. And there are always activities to do.”

Finding the perfect home wasn’t a quick process, though. They’d limited themselves to one neighborhood and a certain price range. They could have built a house but decided not to because they assumed they wouldn’t make much profit on the sale of their old house. In May 2012, they moved into a traditional 4,000-square-foot, light-brick two-story home, which has five bedrooms, fireplaces in both the living room and hearth room, and a third living area on the second floor. The 9-year-old house needed lots of updating, Tina says, so the family rented for six weeks after selling their old house while they redecorated in the modern, uncluttered style they prefer.

The best part, Tina says, is the back patio, which looks out over a pond on the third green of Shadow Valley’s 18-hole championship golf course. “It’s just a cool view,” says Tina. “It’s probably just one of the better views in the neighborhood.”

Shadow Valley’s developer built the subdivision specifically not to be too stuffy, says John Mayer, the Coldwell Banker realtor who sold the Schneiders their home. Instead of a country club, the neighborhood offers an athletic club, with cooking classes and exercise classes for stay-at-home parents. One of the most attractive features of newer family-oriented neighborhoods like Shadow Valley is that many of the homeowners are transplants from other states and seem to be more welcoming to newcomers.

“They all remember what it’s like to be the new person,” he says.

Because there had been so much new construction in Northwest Arkansas so quickly in recent years, the area felt the effects of the real estate bust more than other parts of the state. But that’s starting to turn around as the economy continues to improve, Mayer says. People moving into and out of the area for work guaranteed a certain level of steady business, but now people who had been waiting to upgrade to a larger home are feeling confident enough in the economy to take the plunge.
“It’s crazy,” says Mayer, noting that prices have jumped 5 to 10 percent in recent months. “New construction can’t keep up again.”

Where to Buy … If You’re a City Mouse – Downtown Little Rock
By Rhonda Owen
“You can’t miss it,” Tyler Morgan says when giving directions to his downtown Little Rock home. He’s not kidding. The boxcar-shaped house with its espresso exterior walls, flat roof and wide concrete front steps stands out in sharp contrast to the timeworn traditional dwellings east of Main Street. For most people, it would take thinking outside the box to live in a house that looks like a box. But for Tyler and his wife, Jessica, the simple structure of their house and its energy-saving features perfectly align with their preferred lifestyle.

The couple, both in their mid-20s, are minimalists who try to live “green” and eschew anything bearing even the faintest suggestion of clutter. (You’ll never see them on an episode of “Hoarders.”) Their contemporary, eco-friendly home, designed by students in the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas and built by Page Wilson of Paul Page Dwellings, perfectly suits their needs and wants.

“We enjoy a modern lifestyle,” Tyler says. “If we don’t use it, we don’t need it. That’s our philosophy of living.” That minimalism—no knickknacks, books or toys—is the first thing you notice when stepping through the Plexiglas front door into their white-walled living/kitchen/dining area. The second thing that strikes you is the light streaming through glass walls enclosing a small courtyard between the master bedroom and main living area. “The courtyard is one thing Jessica and I always wanted,” says Tyler. “At night it’s really pretty. It gleams and glows, and you can see the stars.”

Jessica, a lifestyle photographer, and Tyler, a logistics broker at C.H. Robinson, were literally drawn to the house at first sight while it was being built in 2012. “We drove into the driveway, and I saw it and thought, ‘This is what I want,’” Tyler says. Jessica agreed, even though they hadn’t previously considered living in the urban Pettaway Park neighborhood, bounded roughly by 15th Street to the north, 24th Street to the south, Interstate 30 to the east and Main Street to the west. However, it was a natural transition because they were already downtown, having rented a River Market Tower condominium for two years. Their initial move downtown was prompted by a desire to avoid the heavy traffic encountered while driving into the city from their first home in Maumelle.

The Morgans are typical of couples buying into downtown neighborhoods, says Realtor Tony Curtis, who lives nearby on Louisiana Street and has been selling residential property downtown for 10 years. Young people interested in urban living want a creative, eclectic and relaxed lifestyle—as well as a house. “I think, in general, people who buy in the downtown urban area don’t want to waste their lives in a car commuting from a suburb. It’s a quality-of-life issue. Also, this area is house-specific, which means that there are all kinds of houses built anytime from 1840 up to 2013. There are various square footages, conditions and quality—a lot of choices. You can have a house that’s different from others on the block.

While urban decay is obvious throughout older neighborhoods in central Little Rock, Pettaway Park has been on a steady upswing since 1999, when a tornado swept through and destroyed dozens of houses, many of them abandoned or in severe disrepair. When the debris was cleared, rebuilding began, but houses weren’t just rebuilt—the area was completely re-imagined. Unlike the nearby Quapaw Quarter and MacArthur Park historic districts, there are no restrictions on housing design and materials, so now boxy contemporary homes stand next to updated traditional models that neighbor stately Victorian houses or intimate Craftsman bungalows.

The Morgans say although they fell in love with their 1,200-square-foot house first, they have come to love the neighborhood since moving there in March. They like that they can walk to The Root Cafe on Main Street for breakfast or shop for produce at The Bernice Garden’s Farmers’ Market. They relish living in a place where the neighbors are warmly welcoming and get to know you on a first-name basis, and the couple believe it’s a great place to raise their 4-year-old son, Cale. They look forward to seeing how the neighborhood shapes up in the future.
“Things are changing in the neighborhood all the time,” says Tyler. “We love what’s happening here.”
Where to Go … If You’re Ready to Downsize – A No-fuss Condo
By Rhonda Owen
Nancy and Biff Vinson shocked their family and friends—even themselves—when they decided “on a whim” to give up their 3,000-square-foot house in west Little Rock and buy into an upscale condominium half that size and move downtown. The fact that the semi-retired retailers and real estate investors were moving wasn’t a shocker; it was that they were going to—gasp—downsize. But what would they do with their antiques and other precious possessions? What about a garage? How would they ever get along without a garage? Quite easily, they learned. Now, two years after shedding a third of their “stuff,” they sum up downsizing with one word: freedom.

“It’s all very liberating,” Biff says. From his seat at the end of their 19th-century French farm table, he looks around the light, open living area. “Less stuff equals less stress.” Nancy agrees: “You think smarter when you live in a space like this.” Nodding, Biff points to shelves built into the base of the kitchen island behind the table. “That was a place for bar stools, but we didn’t need more seating, so Nancy made the space functional and pretty by turning it into bookshelves.”

The downsized space they moved into was about 1,400 square feet, a little more when you add the square footage of their small balcony. On the 14th floor of the 20-story River Market Tower at Third and Rock streets, the corner condo’s floor-to-ceiling windows in the main living area and master bedroom give them a view of the Clinton Presidential Library, the Arkansas River, the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, downtown and more. All that glass also imbues their sense of freedom with a very bearable lightness of being. “You cannot feel cooped up with windows like this,” Nancy says.

The couple has become almost evangelical in extolling the perks of downtown high-rise living, as well as the upside of living with fewer things and less maintenance. After 20 years of marriage, they had, as most couples do, accumulated a lot of possessions they never used and items they didn’t remember acquiring. “Having so much stuff was such a burden, and you don’t know until you get rid of it,” Nancy says. The couple culled through their possessions to choose the items they loved most, then gave the others to family and friends, and sold, donated or trashed the rest. “We decided this was going to be a grand adventure, and we were going to make the most of it.”

The Vinsons, like others who have invested in River Market Tower condos, enjoy a “maintenance-free lifestyle,” says Margaret Bell, a Realtor with Moses Tucker Real Estate. Jimmy Moses, a partner in the firm, developed the tower complex, which opened in 2009. Among the perks of condo living is that maintenance issues are handled by building staff; even such things as package deliveries are no problem because carriers simply hand packages over to the building concierge.

Although the condo market took a hit during the recession of 2008, it has rebounded, Bell says. About 70 percent of the 132 River Market Tower condos are occupied. At $275 to $300 a square foot, a condo is a major investment, but Bell says “resale values are holding strong.”

Nancy says she and Biff look upon their condo as a good investment, but they have zero desire to sell, a departure from their pattern of buying a house, living in it a couple of years, then buying another. “We’re putting down roots. I love the fact that I can walk out of my door and go walking, biking, shopping, everything. And it’s amazing how much more time you have when you’re not dealing with a yard and gutters and roofs.”

They say they’ve been happily surprised that they miss nothing about their previous lifestyle as house owners. Was there anything that was really hard to part with? The two look at each other, pondering the possibility. Was there? “Hmmm,” Nancy says. “Ummm,” her husband follows. “No,” they answer together. OK, well, they had some concerns about how their traditional furniture—many pieces are large, heavy antiques—would fit into a contemporary setting. But the bamboo flooring, white walls and picture windows make the space seem larger. Plus, it helps that they used their storage space judiciously. For their bedroom closets and kitchen pantry, they utilized custom-designed Elfa shelving systems. In a bathroom closet, Nancy has filled the shelves with baskets that hold supplies and linens.

Truly, the couple says, they’ve found no downside to downsizing. Living downtown is the epitome of convenience. Besides being within walking distance of restaurants, shopping and entertainment, they also have quick access to interstates 30 and 630, which means they can be anywhere in town in minutes. For outdoor activities, they can walk to the River Trail or stay at the River Market Tower to lounge at the swimming pool, play tennis or hit a few balls on the putting green, so they have no reason to regret giving up their yard. And, Biff says, they certainly don’t miss the time spent maintaining a yard.
“We have more freedom and more time together,” Nancy says. “Sometimes we just look at each other and ask, ‘Do we really get to live down here?’”
Where to Buy … If You Need a Weekend Retreat – Hot Springs
By Rhonda Owen
Penni Jacobs doesn’t hesitate when asked what sold her and her husband, Richard, on the tri-level condominium they bought a year ago in a gated community on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs: “Oh, the view! We love, love the view.” But before setting eyes on their condo’s wall of windows overlooking Lake Hamilton, the Jacobs were firmly of a mind that they did not—absolutely, no way—want a condo as their vacation home.

“We didn’t want people above us and below us and around us,” Penni explains. Even if it was unconsciously, after eight years of casual looking and two years of searching in earnest, the couple was inevitably condo-bound. They were always certain that they wanted to buy a home in Hot Springs, long a recreational and vacation hot spot. “We never looked anywhere else. We have ties there, and our friends go there,” says Penni. “It’s only an hour and 10 minutes away from Little Rock, so it’s very convenient.”

During their search, convenience of location was on par with ease of care. The first potential vacation house the Jacobs looked at 10 years ago was one Penni describes as a cute, smallish ranch-style house that looked easy to maintain. So the couple made an offer, which, she says, they’re now thankful was rejected. They decided during their search for the ideal vacation abode that a traditional house and all its upkeep—a yard to mow, roof to reroof, plumbing to plumb—wasn’t what they wanted. They already have that in Little Rock. Their vacation home had to be an escape, a place to kick back, relax and enjoy life without daily responsibilities. It had to be something that would allow Penni a break from homemaking and let Richard put some distance between himself and his job as president of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

“Hot Springs has always been a highly desirable place for recreational homes, second homes and retirement living,” says Hot Springs Realtor Jim McAdams. Hot Springs is a “diverse community” that offers more than just warm-weather activities, a perk that increases its popularity among retirees and others looking for a year-round getaway. Also, he notes, condos and other vacation properties are excellent investments for the future (and the present) because they increase in value while they’re being used.

Along with the lake and Hot Spring’s proximity to Little Rock, the city has a long list of benefits for anyone buying there, Penni says. If the weather is bad, people aren’t stuck in their lake houses. Rainy days can be spent at the horse races or the casino at Oaklawn Park, or shopping at the boutiques lining historic Central Avenue downtown. Nature lovers can explore Garvan Woodland Gardens or Hot Springs National Park. Penni says she and Richard take advantage of it all.

The Jacobs especially appreciate their vacation house because it took so long for them to find. In 2012, Penni says, she had basically declared an end to their search. “I thought either we’re being too picky or …. ” She hesitates before adding, with a laugh, “Well, let’s just say this place was worth waiting for.” Almost as soon she vowed never to look at another house, McAdams emailed the couple photographs of the contemporary-design condo in the gated community of Long Island Bay, less than a 10-minute drive from the historic downtown area. When they opened the photo files on their computer, the couple immediately realized that the four-bedroom condo had everything they wanted—a spectacular view, a prime lakefront location, privacy and, happily, no yard to mow. Residents share a swimming pool, tennis courts and a boat launch.

They didn’t hesitate about buying. The email about the condo arrived on Friday afternoon; the next morning, they were at the condo making an offer. A year later, she says they couldn’t be happier with the low-maintenance getaway they visit every weekend, alone or with family and friends.
“We hit the jackpot,” Penni says.
Where to Buy … If You’re Dreaming of Green Acres – Ferndale
By Rhonda Owen
Once upon a time in Little Rock, anyone with a hankering for a little elbow room needed only to venture a mile or two west of Interstate 430. The drive out to Pinnacle Mountain on rural two-lane roads seemed endless.

Those days, of course, are long gone. It’s easy to miss the turnoff to Pinnacle now amid all the commercial development on Arkansas Highway 10, and the Walmart Supercenter at the end of Chenal Parkway gave everyone a new reference point that redefined the boundaries of “out there.”

“Five minutes from Walmart is close now,” says Debbie Teague, a real estate agent who’s handled a number of large-lot sales in west Little Rock. “People will go within five miles of Walmart for a 5-acre tract. If they want 10 acres, they’ll go 10 miles.”

Teague helped Don and Kim Fowler in their search for a 10-acre property that ended after 18 months when the Fowlers bought a home on two 5-acre lots in the Ridgefield Estates subdivision off Garrison Road in the Ferndale area. The Fowlers moved from their home in a Chenal Valley neighborhood because they wanted to give their two sons, 14-year-old Noah and 12-year-old Ethan, more exposure to the natural world. They’re only about a 5-minute drive from their old neighborhood, but the difference, Don says, is huge.

“It just seems like once you’re outside the city, there’s a slowdown,” he says. “You’re not as anxious, looking toward what’s the next task, what do I need to do? Instead, it’s ‘Man, it’s gorgeous out here. I want to go out and sit down for a few minutes and enjoy it.’”

The commute hasn’t been an issue for the Fowlers; Don is vice president of sales for a cancer diagnostics company and commutes to New Jersey for work, and Kim is a part-time speech pathologist.

They have to build in a few more minutes of travel time for their sons’ sports and other activities, but that hasn’t been a difficult adjustment, Don says. And it’s definitely worth it to be able to give his sons the freedom to roam and experience nature. The property includes two ponds, which are home to geese and ducks, and Fowler mows the entire thing with the help of a “huge” mower and his two boys. The house itself is a traditional red-brick two-story built in 1991 and, at nearly 4,400 square feet, is comparable in size to the one they owned in Chenal.

Finding the right home wasn’t easy, Don says. There’s a high demand for large lots with good building sites. “Anyone can go and get 10 acres on the side of a mountain, but to find 10 acres of usable land is pretty difficult,” he says.

The couple had been looking at a 10-acre lot by Maumelle Park but would have had to build a house and run water lines themselves. “This one was an established home, and it really fit our needs well,” Don says. “It had all the land we needed, stock ponds and all the serenity you get out in the country.”

The Fowler boys love their new home, and their friends do too. “We have a pool now and we’ll have six or eight boys in the pool and staying all night, all that stuff, during the summer,” Don says. “Our social calendar is filled now.”

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