MONEY home prices

These Places Have the Best Housing Bargains in the Country

Scioto River and Columbus, Ohio skyline at dusk.
Columbus, Ohio, skyline at dusk. VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm—Getty Images

As the market tries to adjust to a post-recession world, there are plenty of deals to be had. But there are also plenty of markets where housing is more unaffordable than ever.

With housing price growth slowing down nationwide, and a gradually improving economy, many Americans who’ve been waiting to make a decision on a home are wondering if it’s time to buy or sell.

Here’s some data that might help with those decisions: A new study by RealtyTrac determined which housing markets are more and less affordable relative to their historical averages. The real estate data firm computed the numbers by determining what percentage of an area’s median income would be needed to make payments on a median-priced home in over 1,000 counties, and then compared that to the county’s historical price-to-income ratio over the past 14 years.

So which areas are looking like a bargain? RealtyTrac identified 66 counties with a combined population of 16 million (about 5% of the total survey area’s population) where home prices are lower than historical averages and the unemployment rate was 5% or lower—well below the national unemployment rate of about 6.2%.

This, according to RealtyTrac, is the best way to measure affordability because many markets with cheap housing don’t have quality jobs to offer to new residents. Some undiscovered markets are “undiscovered for good reason because their economies are struggling,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac. “A good example of that is Detroit. Affordability alone isn’t an indication that a market is a good one to buy in or invest in.”

The study found Columbus, Ohio; Oklahoma City; Tulsa; Akron, Ohio; Omaha; Greenville, S.C.; and Des Moines, Iowa, are among the markets with an advantageous combination of employment and affordable housing.

Courtesy of RealtyTrac

Why is housing in these areas undervalued? Basically, the overall real estate market is still recovering from the recession, and prices have yet to adjust in certain markets as investors are slow to discover lesser-known areas with strong economic growth. This pro-buyer environment might not last much longer, though. Blomquist says there’s been an uptick of institutional investor purchasing in Columbus, which means prices are set to rise in the near future.

There’s good news for prospective sellers as well. Prices in over one-third of the counties surveyed are less affordable than their historical averages, suggesting homes there may be over-valued. These cities include San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Austin; San Antonio; Houston; and Atlanta.

Courtesy of RealtyTrac

Should sellers jump at the high prices? If you’re a homeowner in one of these markets, a lot of things are going your way. As prices rise, institutional investors are rushing to invest in these markets, inflating values even further. But there’s also a lack of supply because builders are still reluctant to start new construction.

“It’s a sellers market still [in these areas] because you have a combination of strong demand from this new breed of buyers and low supply because builders are very hesitant,” says Blomquist. “If you’re a seller, you’re not competing against too many others and you have a long liner of buyers.”

However, he cautions that for sellers looking to buy another home in the same market, less affordable home prices may be a double-edged sword. “The catch-22 is if you’re trying to buy too — if that’s the case, then it’s not a great market to buy in.”

MONEY mortgages

WATCH: How You Can Benefit from Easier Mortgages

Mortgage loans are easier to get now. Here's how you can take advantage of it.

MONEY buying a home

How to Tell the Fixer-Uppers From the Flops

You want to buy a home, but you don’t want to pay 20% more for a brand new home with all the bells and whistles already built in. It just so happens that you’re pretty handy and are willing to trade in some ‘sweat equity’ for a great deal on a house that just needs a little TLC. Buying a place that needs some upgrades is a tried and true formula for getting more house for your money. However, not all “fixers” are the same, and not all of them are going to be right one for you.

There are houses for sale and in need of repair on every other block. How do you know which one is a potential money maker for you? Most properties that are fixers generally fall into one of these three categories- including the one you want to run far, far away from:

1. The Cosmetic Fixer

This is the house that just needs a bit of clean up. The sale price is discounted slightly because the sellers and their agent know that there is work to be done. For whatever reason, the sellers didn’t want to invest anymore time or money in the house prior to sale. Things like new paint, carpet, countertops, lighting, landscaping and a few new appliances will give this cosmetic fixer the face lift it needs. A few dozen trips to the home improvement store should do it!

1. The Downright Ugly Fixer

It may be downright ugly, but it is beautiful to you! It has all the right things wrong with it. This is the fixer that needs more extensive repair and remodeling work than the ‘Cosmetic Fixer’ mentioned above. If you can see its potential beauty, and are willing to commit to the work, you will get the deal that others miss.

Some hallmarks of a ‘downright ugly fixer:’

  • No Current Curb Appeal: It’s easy to create with fresh front door paint, new house numbers, mailbox, flowering plants and fresh landscaping
  • Great Bones In Bad Shape: Good construction and architectural lines that have been underutilized or un-accentuated
  • Dark Interiors Cloaked In Ugly Decor: These turn off other buyers, but this is gone as soon as the moving vans pull away with the seller’s possessions
  • Outdated Kitchens: Upgrading your kitchen will be one of the biggest expenses, however, it gives you the biggest return on your dollar
  • Outdated Bathrooms: There are so many great options for bathroom upgrades now at your local home improvement store. You may need to bring in a plumber and tile guy but it will be worth the effort.
  • A House With Pets, Smokers Or Other Bad Smells: Nasty smells aplenty turn off other home shoppers, but a revamp of carpets and drapes and new paint will usually take care of that smelly issue.
  • Leaks In The Roof & A Water-Stained Ceiling: These can really turn away potential buyers – but you will most likely be putting on a new roof, so that will usually eliminate the source of the problem
  • Lots Of Small Rooms, Creating A Choppy Or Claustrophobic Feeling: Look for potential to remove a non-load bearing wall that could open up a kitchen to a living room or den, giving you that all desirable open floor plan.

3. The Fixer Tear Down

When I say ‘a house with the wrong things wrong’, this is the one I mean. This “tear down” house with “broken bones” is the money pit you must run from. If a house has major structural, geological, or severe foundation or environmental problems, you don’t want it. I repeart – you don’t want it. Even if you get the house on the cheap, some problems never go away and are sometimes impossible to fix, no matter how much money you throw at them. This is a Pandora’s Box you do not want to open, because you will never see that money back.

Some telltale signs of a ‘tear down:’

  • Structural Problems That Are Beyond Repair Economically
  • Major shifting due to poor foundation work
  • Unsolvable drainage issues and flooding of the basement
  • Illegal room additions that appear to be not to code, especially bathrooms
  • Major fire, earthquake or flood damage
  • An unstable hillside near the house or slipping or shifting due to soil erosion or flooding
  • Overwhelming asbestos or severe mold issues

More from Trulia:
9 Things to Look For When Touring An Open House
The Pros and Cons of Buying a Newly Built Home
The 10 Most Costly Home Selling Mistakes – And How To Avoid Them

Michael Corbett is Trulia‘s real estate and lifestyle expert. He hosts NBC’s EXTRA’s Mansions and Millionaires and has authored three books on real estate, including Before You Buy!

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Never Do Laundry in the Basement Again

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m sick of doing laundry in the basement. But we can’t afford one of these major laundry room remodels. Is there an affordable way to get the washer and dryer upstairs?

A: That depends, of course, on your home—but the answer is probably yes. Modern front-loading machines ($1,000 to $3,000 for the set, if you don’t have them already) can be stacked like a tower and may require only a 28-inch-wide by 32-inch-deep space, which is small enough to fit in many existing closets without significant modifications, says Curt Schultz, a realtor, architect and contractor in Pasadena, California.

The project is easiest if you can put the machines in a spot that backs up to—or sits above—a bathroom or kitchen, to simplify the plumbing connections. If your house accommodates the upgrade, you’ll likely pay around $1,000 to $3,000 for the construction, which includes running plumbing and electrical lines, a dryer vent, and a floor drain in case of an overflow. (If you have the space for a utility sink, built-in cabinets, a countertop, and a tiled wall and floors, expect to pay an additional $3,000 to $5,000 for the job.)

Since the job is small, you’ll get a better price from a contractor who can do all the work with his own crew instead of someone who’s going to call in a separate subcontractor for each piece of the project, such as the plumbing and electricity, says Schultz.

In any case, there might be no better bang for your renovation buck than moving the laundry machines close to where your bedrooms are. “It’s not that buyers will necessarily up their offers because of an upstairs laundry area,” Schultz says, “but it might be what separates your house from the competition and makes it sell first.”

If you’re staying put, the payback is even bigger because you’ll get to enjoy the upgrade before you sell. Laundry is still going to be a chore, but a much less frustrating one—hopefully with fewer lost socks.

Related:
Budget Renovations for Older Homes

MONEY mortgages

Getting a Mortgage Is Growing Easier

A new report shows credit is more available for homebuyers- even for the self-employed, a group that has previously had trouble securing loans.

Being approved for a mortgage has gotten a little easier for consumers with good credit, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve. The bad news is that standards are still tighter than pre-recession levels, and banks won’t be further loosening them for a while.

The July report, which surveys senior loan officers about their banks’ lending practices, shows almost one-fourth—23.9%—of all banks eased their credit standards in the last three months for borrowers with solid credit and incomes. According to the Wall Street Journal, this is the largest such action by lenders since the financial crisis.

Keith Gumbinger, vice president at mortgage research firm HSH, says that while loans can still be difficult for some consumers to get, banks are approving borrowers with slightly lower credit scores. Previously, Gumbinger says, banks required a FICO score of about 640 to approve a loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration, called an FHA loan. Now applicants with scores as low as 600 are getting the green light.

In July Wells Fargo lowered the minimum credit score needed for a jumbo loan to 700, down from 720, according to Reuters. Jumbo mortgages are generally necessary for consumers who need to borrow more than $417,000. Most banks have stricter requirements for jumbos than they do for smaller loans.

What’s behind the easing? In short, banks are becoming less paranoid. Technically, the government will underwrite FHA loans given to those with credit scores as low as 580. However, banks are reluctant to lend to borrowers with such low scores because a certain number of defaults will cause the feds to pull their backing. As a result, many lenders require FICO scores above those minimums, or other additional requirements—collectively known as “overlays”—to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What’s more, in recent months housing prices have been going up. “If you’re a lender and you make a loan to someone when home prices are rising, and [the loan] fails, well then congratulations,” Gumbinger jokes.

One group benefitting from the changes is the self-employed, who tend to have fluctuating incomes. Since the housing crash, this group has found it extremely difficult to get credit because their unconventional or inconsistent income streams failed to meet the Qualified Mortgage standard that protects banks in case a loan goes south. As a result, lenders willing to give out non-QM loans had been demanding down payments as high as 35%, even from borrowers with a relatively high FICO score. Gumbinger says lenders are now more willing to look for other positive qualities, like a large number of assets or equities, or a higher credit score, instead of asking for huge sums of money up front.

The loosening is good for prospective homebuyers who previously may have just missed most banks’ credit cut-off. What’s not good is there’s not much room to go from here in terms of lowering credit standards further. Banks theoretically have wide latitude to change requirements, and as housing prices go up they may loosen them further, but the primary determinant of who can get a loan are the credit limits set by government mortgage backers who securitize most of the mortgage industry.

Those limits are set by politicians, not bankers, and asking the voting public to allow less dependable mortgages is not exactly an easy sell, especially since bad loans helped cause the financial crisis.

“You’re the head of the [Federal Housing Finance Agency], you lost billions and recovered billions, do you go stand before the American people and say in order to save the housing market we need riskier loans?” asks Gumbinger. “You may not want to put the American taxpayer at risk.”

Related: MONEY 101’s How to Get the Best Rate on a Mortgage

Related: MONEY 101’s How to Improve your Credit Score

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can Rental Income Save Your Retirement?

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Is rental income a good way to diversify my retirement portfolio?

A: For some people, yes. “Rental property can provide another stream of income, a hedge against inflation if rental prices rise and an asset that hopefully will appreciate over time,” says Diann McChesney, a certified financial planner at Asset Strategies Inc. in Avon, Conn. But being a landlord isn’t for everyone and not all properties are a good investment, says McChesney.

To get the most out of a rental property, be judicious about where you buy. Like most things in real estate, location is critical. Buy in a place where there is strong demand for housing so you can command a good rent and you don’t have a hard time finding tenants. You may not want the hassle of owning it in your older retirement years, If you plan to sell it down the road, it’s important to own a property that will be attractive to other investors.

A good rental property has many of the same things you look for in a home: A nice neighborhood, well-regarded schools and jobs that attract people to the area. Be careful about buying a fixer-upper. Unless you are handy or have a lot of time to handle repairs, maintenance problems will eat into the income. Today’s low interest rates make taking on a mortgage reasonable but the real key is ensuring that the rental income generates positive cash flow. If you want an income from the property, rent should more than cover your mortgage, property taxes, maintenance and repairs, says McChesney.

Keep in mind that banks require a larger down payment for—20% to 25%—and charge higher rates. It’s also an illiquid asset, so you won’t be able to tap your investment as easily as you can money in, say, an IRA. While you can get a tax break writing off expenses while you hold the property, once you sell it you’ll pay taxes on that depreciation.

The bottom line: A rental property can be a good way to diversify your retirement portfolio and provide another source of income in your later years. But “there’s a lot more to it than collecting rent,” says McChesney.

MONEY home prices

America’s ‘Gayborhoods’ Are a Lot More Expensive, a Lot Less Gay

Castro Street in San Francisco is decorated in rainbow flags and balloons for Gay Pride month.
Castro Street in San Francisco. Cammie Toloui—Alamy

What becomes of a trendy gay neighborhood when housing prices soar and straight people move in?

As gay acceptance has risen over the years, gay people have increasingly moved away from historically gay neighborhoods, such as the Castro in San Francisco and Chicago’s Boystown. Simultaneously, more and more straight individuals and couples have felt comfortable enough to move into these neighborhoods. As a result, many gay neighborhoods—call them “gayborhoods”—aren’t nearly as gay as they used to be.

That’s the gist of a new book called There Goes the Gayborhood? by Amin Ghaziani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. His research traces the changing face of gay neighborhoods and explores the implications of these shifts in cities around the U.S.

For instance, from 2000 to 2012, the number of same-sex couple households increased in nearly every neighborhood in Seattle, with one glaring exception: Capitol Hill, described as the “center of the city’s gay and counterculture communities,” according to Wikipedia, experienced a 23% decrease in same-sex households over the same time span, the Seattle Times noted.

“This isn’t unique to Seattle,” Ghaziani explained. As gays have moved far beyond gayborhoods to other parts of cities and into small towns and the suburbs, a “straightening” has taken place in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill.

Much of Ghaziani’s research is based on Chicago’s Boystown, where he lived for nearly a decade, and where the idea for the book was born. “My friends and I began to notice changes in the character and composition of the neighborhood,” he said to the Chicago Tribune “We’d notice more straight couples holding hands and more baby strollers. That became a symbol. Oftentimes a sex store would close and a nail salon would open in its place.”

The shifting demographics must be viewed as a sign of growing acceptance—that of straight people in traditionally gay neighborhoods, and of gay people throughout the land. Still, many of the sources quoted in Ghaziani’s book worry that the blurred lines could mean that much of what makes a gayborhood special will disappear. In an op-ed he wrote recently, Ghaziani quoted Dick Dadey, who was the executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda in the 1990s, explaining, “there is a portion of our community that wants to be separatist, to have a queer culture.” Still, Dadey said, “most of us want to be treated like everyone is,” and, “we want to be the neighbors next door, not the lesbian or gay couple next door.”

Then there are the financial implications of all of these shifts. “It’s impossible to discuss gay neighborhoods without considering economic factors like rent and housing prices,” Ghaziani said in an email to MONEY. He pointed out some data from Trulia in the book showing that several traditionally gay neighborhoods, like West Hollywood and New York’s West Village, are extremely expensive places to live.

Meanwhile, according to 2013 report from Trulia, prices in urban U.S. neighborhoods have been increasing at a faster pace than the suburbs, and prices soared in gay-friendly city neighborhoods in particular:

Neighborhoods where same-sex male couples account for more than 1% of all households (that’s three times the national average) had price increases, on average, of 13.8%. In neighborhoods where same-sex female couples account for more than 1% of all households, prices increased by 16.5% – more than one-and-a-half times the national increase.

These numbers are backed up by other research, such as that highlighted earlier this year by Richard Florida, the celebrated urban theorist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class. In a City Lab post, Florida summed up recent research indicating “a connection between gay neighborhoods and some of the markers of gentrification,” and that “neighborhoods that began the decade with larger concentrations of gay men saw greater income growth, and, especially in the Northeast, greater population growth as well.”

Ghaziani writes, “I don’t think gayborhoods are dying.” But Florida doesn’t sound quite as convinced, writing, “As these areas of the city continue to change, potentially pricing out some of the gay couples who moved in decades ago, gayborhoods could just as easily become a thing of the past.”

MONEY Millennials

The 15 Most Affordable Cities for Millennials

Greeting Card from Augusta, Georgia. ca. 1943
Universal Images Group (Lake County Discovery Museum)—Alamy

Finding an affordable place to live is one of the biggest challenges for millennials. This list should make it easier.

Last week, we told you about the 15 most expensive cities for millennials to live in based on a recent study by RealtyTrac. This week, we bring you the other side of the story: the 15 areas that are the most affordable, and the most attractive, to young people.

To quickly review how this list came to be, RealtyTrac ranked counties with at least 100,000 people by the percentage of median income one needs to spend in order to make a median housing payment or pay an average rent bill on a three-bedroom property. To make sure these cities are actually places young people would want to live, the company only included areas where millennials make up at least 24% of the population, and where the percentage of millennials has increased over the past six years.

So which area wins the most-affordable crown? It depends if you’re renting or buying. As is often the case, renting is significantly more expensive than making payments on purchased property. The best county for buyers—Richmond County, Georgia, which includes the city of Augusta—will cost an owner 10% less of their median income than if they were renting in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, the most affordable area for leasing.

For renters, Bossier Parish, home to Bossier City, will cost about 20% of the area’s median income. Average rent on a three-bedroom is a paltry $943. There aren’t as many familiar names on this list as its less affordable cousin, but some relatively major cities do make an appearance. Dane County, ranked ninth, includes Madison, Wisconsin; a beautiful city that also houses one of the nation’s top universities. Franklin County, home to to Columbus, Ohio, also offers a great city for millennials to live. Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Hennepin County even squeaks in at number 14.

Those willing to purchase a home are going to see a very different ranking. While Baltimore and Philadelphia are some of the least affordable places to rent, they’re actually one of the more affordable cities for buyers. Philadelphia County and Baltimore City rank 5th and 6th respectively, and payments will cost buyers around 14% of their area’s median income. Other highlights are Milwaukee, Minnesota, which comes in 9th, and Columbus’s Franklin County, which makes another, more highly ranked appearance.

Want the whole list? Here it is:

MONEY home improvement

The This Old House Great Giveaway

This Old House giveaway promo

The folks over at MONEY’s fellow Time Inc. site, This Old House, are giving away $728,840 in home products in “The Great TOH Giveaway” sweepstakes.

You could win one of the hundreds of prize packages, including kitchen appliances and utensils, hardwood floors, master bath fixtures, vacuum cleaners, cruise vacations, stereo systems, a new roof, windows, window treatments, and more!

Go to thisoldhouse.com/win to choose which prizes you’d like to enter to win. You can pick them all, or check only the prizes you want. Enter every day between now and September 2 for more chances to win.

Related:
The $468 Farmhouse Kitchen
The Best Yard Tools for Your Money
4 (Mostly) Cheap and Easy Ways to Green Up Your Grass

MONEY Millennials

The 15 Most Expensive Cities for Millennials

Skateboarder on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California
And the "winner" is...the City by the Bay. Jordan Siemens—Getty Images

Finding an affordable place to live is hard, especially when you're just starting out. Here are 15 cities where you'll be pinching pennies.

In June, I moved out of my college dorm room into what I thought was a reasonably priced apartment. I need two roommates to afford the monthly rent, and my room lacks space for anything more than a bed and tiny desk. But I figured those were luxuries my peers in other big cities gave up in their first apartment, too, right?

Wrong.

A new report from RealtyTrac ranks New York, my home town, as the one of the least affordable areas for millennials in the entire country. The study ranked counties with at least 100,000 people by the percentage of median income one needs to spend in order to make a median housing payment or pay an average rent bill on a three-bedroom property. In order to focus on young people, RealtyTrac only included areas where millennials make up at least 24% of the population, and where the percentage of young people has increased over the past six years.

When it comes to least affordable counties to buy a house, four of NYC’s five boroughs take up almost a third of the list, with Manhattan (New York County), Brooklyn (Kings Country), the Bronx (Bronx County), and Queens (Queens Country), each “earning” a spot.

The West Coast isn’t off the hook, either. Beating out Manhattan for the dubious honor of most expensive city for young people is San Francisco. Buying a median-priced three-bedroom house—$950,000 as of this April— in the City by the Bay will cost median income earners more than 78% of their wages.

In terms of renting, the picture changes—but only slightly. Bronx county is the least affordable of the nation’s millennial-heavy areas, not because three-bedroom rent—averaged at about $1,850 a month—is particularly expensive, but because median incomes are relatively low. In 2014, the median Bronx household is estimated to make only $32,891.

For residents of San Francisco, renting is actually relatively more affordable than buying. Leasing an apartment will take about 40% of a median earner’s income, almost half of what the usual housing payment would take away.

OK, we all knew New York and San Francisco were going to be expensive (just maybe not this expensive), but there are some surprising names on the list, too. Our nation’s capital takes up two spots on the most unaffordable homes list, and snowy Denver, Colorado, comes in before Portlandia‘s notoriously expensive namesake.

(No word on whether Denver has restaurants that inform you how many friends your chicken dinner had growing up.)

Renters will also notice that some cities they thought were cheap are a lot less affordable than expected. Baltimore, home of The Wire, is the the second least affordable city, behind the Bronx. Philadelphia comes in third, but the good news is that millennials have been surging into the city recently. From 2007 to 2013, Philly’s young-person population has increased by a fourth. At least you’ll have people your age to complain to about the rent.

What’s also notable are the cities not on this list. Hubs like Boston, San Antonio, Chicago, Houston, and San Jose are nowhere to be found. That doesn’t mean they’re cheap, but their prices might be more manageable than most people realize.

Check out the full list below for even more information.

More: The 5 Cities That Have Recovered Most—and Least—From the Recession

 

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