When Jana Sestili and> her husband decided to move with their two children to a larger house in the Pittsburgh suburbs, some people thought they were taking a foolish risk. The refrain, says Sestili, was simple: I don t know how you ll do this in this market. But the couple ignored the doubters and forged ahead anyway. They sold their house for their asking price of $329,000, well above the $213,000 they d spent to build it nine years ago. And they plowed the proceeds and then some into a four-bedroom, $400,000 dream house, complete with an in-ground pool, a brand-new kitchen and 4,500 square feet of living space. For what s in the house, we got a great price, says Sestili, an official with the University of Pittsburgh s alumni association.
It s tempting to listen to the neighbors or glance at the latest headlines (foreclosures! falling home sales!) and cower on the sidelines of the real estate bust. But some folks are looking past today s uncertain economy and concluding that in a number of markets real estate deals are just too good to pass up. Indeed, some housing experts have been arguing for two years now that with the combination of lower home prices and rock-bottom mortgage rates, the cost of buying a home is lower than it has been in years. David Berson, chief economist at the PMI Group, says that during the boom, the median sales price for a U.S. home reached 7.3 times disposable per capita income; today that ratio is five times. Things are amazingly affordable, he says.
Of course, just because homes prices have declined doesn t mean they can t go any lower. While careful buyers can find bargains in almost any market, experts say some cities look a lot better than others. According to PMI s risk index, which uses measures like economic conditions and family income to predict the direction of home prices, more than a quarter of the country's 381 metro areas have less than a 30 percent chance of seeing lower prices two years from now. (Pittsburgh s risk: a modest 12 percent.) And many of them happen to be in the Heartland. That s partly because while the coasts were booming, housing prices in much of the Midwest and South advanced at a slower pace, so they didn t have as far to fall. Some of these places are also benefiting from a welcome dose of good news about the local economy, whether it s a new ballpark in Omaha or a growing regional shale-gas industry bringing jobs to Pittsburgh.
Nationwide, the picture is fuzzier, with every shred of good news seemingly countered by bad news. Inventories of unsold homes are down 13 percent from their peak, but there s still a 12-month supply at the current sales pace (in a healthy market, it s more like a six-month supply). The government s tax credit for home buyers helped for a while, but sales fell when the credit expired. Default notices have declined from their April 2009 peak, but they still approach 100,000 a month. Amid the crosscurrents, even real estate experts are stumped. I don t think anybody knows where the market s going in the near future, says Yale economist and housing guru Robert Shiller.
Years from now, of course, we ll know the exact bottom of the housing market. In the meantime, experts say buyers can mitigate their risk by looking at markets with steady economies and low odds of falling prices. We scoured the numbers to find metro areas that appear to be past their bottom and where unemployment a key measure of real estate health is below the national average of 9.6 percent. The result: 20 metro areas where things may finally be looking up.
Who needs steel when you have natural gas? United States Steel still calls Pittsburgh home, but natural gas fever has broken out in Pennsylvania. As companies work to tap the huge reserves of the play known as the Marcellus Shale, many are setting up shop in the Pittsburgh area. With 1,500 new jobs since 2004 for southwestern Pennsylvania and more on the way, it really is a gas rush, says Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of corporate relations for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. Those coveted new jobs complement the area s continued strength in the service sector. Indeed, with job machines like the University of Pittsburgh and its Medical Center, higher education and health care provide employment for one in five workers, says Harold D. Miller, adjunct professor of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University.
Like other urban areas, the city of Pittsburgh itself, at the intersection of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, has had its challenges lately. A budget crunch led to tax increases, staffing cuts and frozen wages for some city employees. But the area s 7.4 percent unemployment rate, while not exactly low, is below the national average and far from the double-digit rates in the Rust Belt days of the 1980s. Although the median price of a house has dipped in the past year, it s up about 8 percent during the past five years. That, and the charm of a place with more bridges (400-plus) than Venice, helps attract young professionals like Jessica and Eric Vukmir. Moving from Cincinnati, the couple settled in the leafy suburb of Fox Chapel, partly because of the strength of its schools and its proximity to downtown. Given those attributes, the full asking price of $525,000 didn t sound like too much for a home with four bedrooms, two baths and two half-baths. We didn t want to lose it, says Jessica.
Photo courtesy of Howard Hanna>
Boosters of Alabama s capital point to Maxwell Air Force Base hub of the Air Force s officer training and IT development as a backbone of the economy. But the city owes much of its recent success to the migration of auto plants to the South, with Alabama alone boasting about 250 auto-related manufacturers. The Montgomery plant opened in 2005 by South Korea s Hyundai Motor has added some 7,000 jobs to the tri-county area, including those at more than two dozen suppliers. The factory has done so well that the city recently won a competition for a Hyundai plant that will make electric transformers. And it s not just the number of jobs that counts: Keivan Deravi, an economics professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, says that Hyundai has boosted prevailing wages for skilled factory workers in Montgomery by about 20 percent since its arrival.
Local real estate experts say strong employment has kept demand for homes constant, while developers have avoided overbuilding. That, says Deravi, helps keep the economy boringly stable. And that s good news for home buyers in a city where housing dollars go a long way. Stable prices are part of what attracted Paul and Jenni Register to Wynlakes, a neighborhood with a golf course and country club on the east side of Montgomery. With a child on the way, the Registers wanted more space than their 2,400-square-foot villa offered, and they liked the big yards and ample security in the new neighborhood. The couple ended up paying $555,000 for a 3,800-square-foot home which their real estate agent says was about 4 percent below the list price. It wasn t a steal, Paul says. But it s a desired neighborhood that will hold its value.
Photo courtesy of Aegis-Michaud Properties >
Madison hasn t felt the downturn as intensely as Midwestern neighbors like Milwaukee or Detroit, leading some to declare the city recessionproof. It s not, says Stephen Malpezzi, a real estate professor at the University of Wisconsin. We just didn t boom and bust as much. Part of that is due to Madison s economic anchor the 42,000-student University of Wisconsin. In addition to collecting all those tuition checks, the university is giving the area s construction industry a boost, with 38 capital-improvement projects totaling $1.3 billion under way, many of them to replace outdated buildings from the 1960s. But it s not just bricks and mortarboards: The state capital is also the home of old standbys like Oscar Mayer (a unit of Kraft Foods) and newcomers like a crop of biotech companies founded by those connected to the university.
Divided by Lake Mendota, Madison s east side has attracted a mix of corporate execs and blue collar workers, while the west side has been the home of professors and physicians employed by the school and its medical center. The west-side village of Shorewood Hills, which abuts the university and extends to the lakeshore, has held up well in the downturn because of minimal turnover, says local broker David Stark. The homes that are selling now are on the higher-priced side: The median price of the 14 homes closed so far this year is $518,500, up 30 percent from last year. It s not uncommon to find professors riding their bikes to work among the eclectic mix of stately brick Tudors and contemporary abodes. The lack of cookie-cutter homes enticed Tricia Luedtke and her fianc , both university alums, to buy a Cape Cod style home in Shorewood Hills in late August. Now that they ve settled in, they re looking forward to running and biking on trails near the lake and, of course, cheering on their beloved Badgers during football season.
Photo courtesy of Restaino and Associates>
Omahans are used to hearing from their cousins on the coasts about how they live in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but farmland. Yet as the city s population has grown over the years, that plentiful supply of land has helped buffer the region from ballooning real estate prices and let it avoid the subsequent bust. Since 2000, housing prices in Omaha have increased almost every year, says Steve Shultz, a real estate professor at the University of Nebraska. The job market has also held up well, with the area s financial-services and data-processing firms accompanied by a growing biofuels industry. The result: an unemployment rate of just 5 percent.
Even some of the less robust parts of Omaha s real estate market have had good news lately. Just north of downtown, a minor-league baseball stadium will be replaced by the new $120 million TD Ameritrade Park Omaha stadium in 2011. Shultz says homes in other areas of town, like the historic houses around the University of Nebraska s Omaha campus, have held their value, partly because of access to local parks. Locals like Jennifer Miller, 36, have also had their eyes on Elkhorn a higher-end burb with strong schools that was absorbed into Omaha just five years ago. Even though Miller and her family had been living in another neighborhood for just three years, they sold their home earlier this year and traded up to a $325,000 house with nearly 20 percent more room, a soaking tub in the master bath, and a kitchen with granite countertops and a double oven. We mostly microwave dinner for our kids, admits Miller. But it s nice to know we have it.
Photo courtesy of Great Plains Realtors >
San Antonio, TX
It might not rival the best of Europe s canals, but every year millions of folks flock to the River Walk, a network of paths along the San Antonio River that connects pedestrians with restaurants, shops and other attractions in the heart of San Antonio. And the walk is getting longer, slated to expand from 2 miles in 2009 to 13 miles by the end of 2014, thanks to a $279 million development project. That s good news for upscale real estate, as the River Walk continues to draw affluent homebuyers to nearby neighborhoods. In King William Historic District, for example, a 3,300-square-foot Spanish colonial style house runs about $900,000. A short drive away, in the so-called tri-cities area of Olmos Park, Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills, buyers can find just as much elbow room for $500,000 to $800,000. Commercial developments in other parts of the city have also helped prop up housing prices, which are up a strong 17 percent over the past five years. Texas A&M University is building a San Antonio campus, and JW Marriott recently opened a luxury golf resort and spa, complete with three water slides and a rapid river ride.
While the region s unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, that s still below the national average, thanks in part to thousands of jobs at five nearby military bases and training facilities. Some real estate experts see other positive signs, as the nation s seventh-largest city attracts companies enticed by relatively low labor costs, bilingual employees and the absence of a state income tax. Insurers Allstate and Nationwide combined recently announced plans to hire a combined total of nearly 1,400 workers for their regional offices, while medical-device makers Becton, Dickinson & Co. and Medtronic expect to employ even more in facilities they re moving into or building. San Antonio, like the rest of the nation, got paralyzed for months, says Debra Janes, a luxury real estate agent from the area. But, she says, that trouble really subsided this year.
Photo courtesy of Kristan Kieschnick>