WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Some of Texas’ most expensive neighborhoods are in Travis County. West Lake, West Lake Hills and Rollingwood are in the top 10, according to data from Zillow.
That’s one reason why Kim Eklund started looking north in Williamson County, once her Austin rent shot up this summer.
“Year over year, that was more than like a 17% increase for our renewals,” she said.
After being an Austin renter since 2016, she and her partner decided to jump into homeownership.
“We knew that we weren’t going to leave Austin anytime soon, so we decided to plant roots,” Eklund said.
Eklund isn’t alone. Austin realtor Erin Morrison said she does 90% of her business in Williamson County.
“You get more bang for the buck out in Williamson County, and you get a, probably, a brand new or newer home in Williamson County than you would if you were in central Austin,” Morrison explained.
She said the demand has bumped up median home sale prices 7% year over year, even higher than Travis County’s 5.8% increase.
“We saw the Austin effect, is what I call it, pretty much from center of downtown all the way up as far north as Jarrell, especially during the pandemic,” she said.
Morrison said the highest growth is happening in Georgetown, Liberty Hill and Cedar Park.
But Morrison said the median home sale price is still cheaper in the northern county at around $460,000 compared to around $545,000 in Travis County.
“Even though we’re seeing home values increase, it’s still more affordable, if you look at the home value itself to be in Williamson County,” she said.
But there’s one big strain on affordability there, she said — property taxes.
Morrison said on average, Williamson County’s tax rates are around 2.9 to 3%. In Travis County, they’re around 2.3 to 2.4%.
Using the higher of the two rates on a $500,000 home, that’s $15,000 a year for property taxes in Williamson County and $12,000 a year in Travis County, she explained.
“You’re going to end up with a newer house most likely, that doesn’t need as much maintenance and potentially even a brand new home from a builder that comes with warranties, but you’re going to have some property higher property taxes, which may impact your monthly payment,” Morrison said.
It’s something Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell said he’s trying to address.
“I can’t affect the price of a house. But what I can do as a leader is to cut the tax rate where I can, he said.
Gravell said he and the commissioner’s court have also increased the homestead exemption to keep families here.
“I think you’ll see the court possibly continue to do that,” he said.
He also said they’re prioritizing workforce housing: housing for officers, teachers, nurses and paramedics.
He said they’re in early-stage discussions with some school districts to talk about possible partnerships.
“Schools that are considering bond packages to build workforce housing for school teachers and possibly the county working with them,” Gravell said.
He’ll be bringing these ideas to a new, national task force he’s been appointed to for tackling affordability.
He also hopes to bring back innovative ideas from others. The National Association of Counties’ task force has 30 county leaders from across the country “with the mission of examining comprehensive county-led solutions to housing.”
Travis County commissioner Ann Howard is also on the task force.
“We’re losing members of our community, because they’re being priced out,” Howard said.
Howard said they’re trying to improve the county’s development process.
“Looking at every piece of it — fees, at calendars, at requirements, we want to be laser-focused on efficiency,” she said.
They’re also looking at county inventory to see if that could be developed using a public-private partnership and thinking out of the box when it comes to the “siting” of affordable housing.
“What are parking lots, maybe shopping malls, strip malls, that could, you know, we could add, go back and add density or housing to a parking lot,” she said. “Looking at building housing on top of fire stations or libraries.”
She said the national task force is set to meet in Austin next summer and publish its report.
Morrison advises homeowners to file homestead exemptions and protest their taxes every year.
She also said Williamson County’s Taylor is still a great place to find affordable housing.
“Even with the announcement of Samsung, Taylor is still a phenomenal choice when looking for more affordable housing,” she said.
She said move-in ready homes start around $260,000, with new construction homes in the low $300s.
“In addition, there is amazing growth there, not only with future Samsung employees but all of the secondary and tertiary jobs (restaurants, grocery stores, etc), as well,” she said.
Eklund said their decision between renting and purchasing or where to purchase wasn’t easy, but she’s hoping it’ll be worth it.
“You’re more cattle and you got to pick which pen you want to go to. You’re not going to be happy with whatever choice you’re going to make. But you kind of hope that whatever choice you did make was the better one in the end,” she said.