Yes. America Still Has Affordable Homes (Gasp!). Here’s Where They Are


America’s torrid housing market isn’t showing any signs of slowing down—at least for now.

In April, every home sold in the U.S. had at least 5 offers on average according to the National Association of Realtors, while three-quarters of offers for homes represented by Redfin agents resulted in bidding wars. In some markets, homes are selling for up to 30% over ask with no contingencies and 48% of houses nationwide last month sold for more than their original list price. One suburban Washington, D.C. 4-bedroom home reportedly recently had 76 all-cash offers within 72 hours of being listed.

No matter how you cut it that’s called overheated.

The current hyper-caffeinated housing market isn’t just isolated to the U.S.

Home prices in 37 of the world’s wealthiest countries comprising the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (a.k.a. the OECD), including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Korea, and virtually all of Europe, rose 7% year-over-year between 2019 and 2020, the fastest pace of international housing inflation in two decades since before the Great Recession.

For Millennial first-time homebuyers, current homeowners and Baby Boomers looking to downsize or pull new-found equity from their homes, or growing families needing to trade up, all of the panic buying raises two essential questions. How long will the current boom last? And, more importantly for buyers who don’t have the time to wait around to find out, are there any affordable houses in America left?

On the former question, there are mixed opinions on how long the current froth can sustain itself against persistently high unemployment and low wage growth on the backside of the pandemic. But most real estate economists and experts largely agree that the fundamentals of the present housing upswing are strong—unlike the glass house that was 2008 and despite predictions that the pandemically-induced economic contraction last year could force tens of millions of Americans into foreclosure and eviction, triggering another national housing crisis.

The reality is that the opposite happened.

For an American economy that’s still recovering, this is all great news for current homeowners, recent buyers, and investors who’ve gotten in early enough to get a piece of the action on one of the hottest asset classes right now outside of the stock market.

But the panic homebuying has driven up prices beyond most current buyers’ financial capabilities, which in turn is exacerbating an affordability and housing supply crisis that’s been festering in the U.S. for years since the Great Recession, particularly among the approximately 5 million Millennials turning 30 every year and entering prime first-time homebuying years.

As to the more important second question: Where are affordable homes in vibrant, stable American cities still available?

It turns out a lot of places—if you know where to look and don’t have to commute every day to a top ten U.S. metropolitan area like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, or Washington, D.C., which fortunately tens of millions of Americans no longer have to in the new remote work normal.

Against most buyers expectations, most of these affordable cities right now are also in some of America’s hottest destinations currently when it comes to everything Millennials and first-time homebuyers want according to real estate experts, including thriving local hubs for food (Louisville), music (Memphis), sports (Pittsburgh), tech (Indianapolis), and jobs (Birmingham).  

What’s ultimately driving affordability in America’s last attainable housing markets are prices that already were reasonable in the first place before the pandemic hit. As a result, compared with currently super-charged markets like South Florida and Austin that just got tighter and more irrational over the past twelve months, many homes in these cities already were within most first-time homebuyers’ financial limits in the first place despite nationwide housing supply constraints.

“These affordable markets are not necessarily any less competitive than many others around the country. The crucial difference is price point,” says Arpita Chakravorty, a Zillow Economist. “In some of these cities home values are up almost 20% from a year ago, which are some of the highest growth rates in the country and not far off from what we’re seeing in places like Phoenix or Austin. But even with the strong appreciation in the markets on this list, they remain among the least expensive large U.S. metros in terms of home prices overall.”

The new remote work normal is also empowering millions of potential homebuyers to look at cities and neighborhoods that were never on the map before because they needed to commute to jobs in major metropolitan areas. That’s making homes in formerly lesser known cities in the Midwest and South that always had thriving downtowns and sustainable economies before the pandemic some of the best places to invest in real estate in the country based on year-over-year appreciation.

“The explosion of remote work has caused many to reimagine what and where they want their home to be,” continues Chakravorty. “So more affordable areas of the country are in high demand as buyers look for homes that offer more room to spread out. That could mean moving farther from a downtown core into nearby suburbs, or from a more-expensive metro to a less-expensive one which is in part what’s driving price appreciation in these smaller, Midwestern and Southern cities. The bottom line is that we are still in the early stages of what we call the Great Reshuffling as many are taking advantage of more flexible remote work policies to rethink where and how they want to live. Some who have been working remotely during the pandemic may be called back to the office. But others will receive firm guidance from their employer of a permanent ability to work remotely and take advantage of that freedom for years.”

As for the future of America’s housing affordability crisis, few are bold enough to predict what comes next. But everyone agrees on the most obvious solution: more supply—particularly when it comes to Millennial, first-time, women, minority, and immigrant homebuyers.

“More housing is the clearest path to a more balanced market between buyers and sellers,” says Chakravorty. “Ideas like down payment assistance can help, especially for younger generations who are competing in today’s incredibly competitive market with long-time homeowners who have built up equity from the home price gains in recent years. But demand shows no signs of meaningfully slowing any time soon, so without more supply to meet that demand it’s likely that prices will continue to grow at a fast pace and make down payments a bigger and bigger challenge for first-time buyers. Builders are doing their part, but it will take years, if not decades, to catch up from the underbuilding that took place following the Great Recession.”

In the meantime here are fifteen of America’s most affordable cities where home prices still are attainable with some of the most, vibrant up-and-coming cultural, outdoor, entertainment, hospitality, and tech scenes in the country.

[NOTES: Cities are ranked from high to low based on mortgage affordability as determined by Zillow and based on the share of a metro’s median income that would be needed to pay a mortgage on the median house in that metro area. A negative number in mortgage affordability Y-O-Y means that city got more affordable between Jan. 2020 and Jan. 2021. All data courtesy of Zillow]

Jackson, MS

·     Mortgage Affordability: 11.1%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -6.9%

·     Median Home Price: $157,611

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 8.8%

Little Rock, AR

·     Mortgage Affordability: 11.3%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -7.2%

·     Median Home Price: $166,580

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 7.6%

Baton Rouge, LA

·     Mortgage Affordability: 12.6%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -5.4%

·     Median Home Price: $198,547

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 3.3%

Birmingham, AL

·     Mortgage Affordability: 12.6%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -2.9%

·     Median Home Price: $195,643

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 10.7%

Oklahoma City, OK

·     Mortgage Affordability: 12.7%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: 0.8%

·     Median Home Price: $179,922

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 8.9%

Indianapolis, IN

·     Mortgage Affordability: 12.8%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -1.2%

·     Median Home Price: $212,334

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: $13.7%

Columbia, SC

·     Mortgage Affordability: 12.8%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: 2.1%

·     Median Home Price: $179,785

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: $10.3%

Augusta, GA

·     Mortgage Affordability: 12.9%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: 1.4%

·     Median Home Price: $177,614

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 12.2%

Louisville, KY

·     Mortgage Affordability: 13%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -6.8%

·     Median Home Price: $205,647

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 10.6%

Memphis, TN

·     Mortgage Affordability: 13.3%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -0.7%

·     Median Home Price: $182,914

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 13.2%

Pittsburgh, PA

·     Mortgage Affordability: 13.4%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: -0.1%

·     Median Home Price: $185,063

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 13%

Winston-Salem, NC

·     Mortgage Affordability: 13.4%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: 0.5%

·     Median Home Price: $184,526

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 15.1%

St. Louis, MO

·     Mortgage Affordability: 13.7%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: 0.4%

·     Median Home Price: $205,604

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 11.5%

Cleveland, OH

·     Mortgage Affordability: 14%

·     Mortgage Affordability Y-O-Y Change: 0.8%

·     Median Home Price: $184,224

·     Y-O-Y Price Appreciation: 13.5%

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