Mercer seniors search for housing amid changing market, COVID-19 pandemic

Editor’s note: Micah Johnston is a student at Mercer University working with the Telegraph this spring. This story is part of a Middle Georgia housing series by Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism with partners 13WMAZ,  The Macon Telegraph, and Georgia Public Broadcasting.

As the housing market continues to boom, it is very difficult to find houses for sale or for rent in Georgia.

Sarah Dockery

In Macon, the average price of a house has increased by more than $30,000, according to Middle Georgia MLS, making buying or renting a tough task.

Young adults and college students have been hit particularly hard by this change, struggling to find a place to live during their senior years or after they graduate.

“We were waiting for weeks beforehand to figure out if we were able to get this place, and it was terrifying,” Mercer student Jackson Fox said of his housing experience. “I was trying to build up all these backup plans in case we didn’t get this house.”

Fox and two friends were able to find a place to rent ahead of their senior year at Mercer University in Macon, but the process was not easy. Fox says the house was only available because it was under construction. The group was still second in line for an opportunity to rent even after contacting the homeowner prior to the end of the renovation.

Securing the house involved lots of phone calls, lots of waiting, and lots of worrying. While the original renters eventually canceled, finding the place to live was still an ordeal.

“We were really lucky,” Fox said. “We just kind of snatched it as soon as it was ready.”

Fewer and fewer houses are being built, to begin with, according to realtors interviewed by the Telegraph in a study of Macon’s housing market. Home Builders Association of Middle Georgia president Barney Bennett told the Telegraph that construction costs have steadily increased since the pandemic began in March 2020, leading to less houses being built and more pressure on buyers and renters to offer more cash.

“The price for framing a new house is basically doubled or a little more just in the rough lumber cost. Other things have gone up across the board,” Bennett said. “We can’t go to the supply houses and find the things that we need to finish or complete the houses. It’s a challenge.”

COVID-19 didn’t just impact construction prices and the housing market, though. The pandemic has also had a profound effect on the home-buying process.

“It was fairly hard to get in contact with some people; some of them we had to do contactless tours or online tours,” Mercer student Sarah Dockery said of her housing search. “That wasn’t the best experience.”

Dockery and her roommates inquired about multiple apartments and spaces for over a month.

On top of the market-driven and pandemic-related issues, there’s another wrinkle that Mercer students in Macon must deal with. The university requires students to either live off-campus or live in a Mercer Loft during their senior year instead of traditional on-campus dorm housing.

Students are often left with a choice between the price of a loft or a long search for off-campus living. Fox says he was on the brink of having to sign a contract because his housing situation was running behind the due date set by Mercer.

“On the day of, I have to fill out this loft retention form, or I am at the mercy of the housing process,” Fox said. “Then we got a text saying ‘Hey, those guys canceled, you got the house,’ and we were lucky and super happy about that.”

With the numerous factors at play in finding a place to live during school, Dockery offered her own advice about finding housing.

“Just make sure you know your roommates, know your price range and start early because it’s better to have it figured out than not have a place to live,” she said.

As the end of the semester, approaches and housing decisions for the next year are being made amid a frantic market, many students will likely be taking her advice.