Do I Have To Move to Buy a Home?


If you’ve been living in a major city the past few years, you’ve probably seen your rent go up – and up, and up – and thought about buying a home to escape the rent hikes. Problem is, you’ve likely watched helplessly as the prices of nearby condos and houses climbed out of your reach even faster. If you’re feeling priced out in the city you call home, should you consider moving to make your dream of homeownership come true?

Home prices in America’s 30 biggest metro areas have risen 26% since 2012, while median incomes have only crept up 1.6%. You don’t need a math degree to see what that adds up to: It’s gotten harder for the average earner to afford a home.

That’s especially true in the city, as urban home values rose faster than their suburban counterparts from 2010 to 2015. By early 2016, urban homes were worth roughly 25% more than suburban ones on a per-square-foot basis, overturning a decades-old trend.

However, those housing gains haven’t been uniform. While some cities – particularly knowledge or tech hubs like San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. – have seen staggering price increases, others have yet to claw back to pre-recession levels. So if you’ve ever wished there was a magic wand or silver bullet solution that could help you afford your first home, well, there might be — if you don’t mind moving.

If the city you call home is preposterously priced, and you really want to buy a home, you might consider moving to a place where you can actually afford to do it. That might be out toward your metro area’s farther-flung suburbs, or to an entirely different city altogether.

Option 1: The Suburbs

The ‘burbs may not sound too bad — this was once the picket-fenced headquarters of the American Dream, right? But prime suburbs – those with good school systems that are most convenient to the city or connected to it by transit – are often still crazy expensive; for real affordability, you might be looking way farther out.

If you’re like a lot of younger Americans — who crave the walkability, restaurants, and other amenities of urban areas — trading an active life in the city for a 70-minute commute each way to work can feel dispiriting. But if you work from home or your job is outside the city anyway, and you’ve always imagined a house with a yard, this might be your chance to achieve that dream.

At the very least, you owe it to yourself to explore other areas in, around, near, and outside of your city. Look at different neighborhoods in your city, and seek out undervalued towns whose flaws you can live with. If the schools are bad, but you don’t plan on having kids, who cares? If it’s an hour train ride into downtown, but you like reading on trains, who cares? And if there aren’t many restaurants in the neighborhood, but you cook at home every night anyway… who cares?

Option 2: Relocate Entirely

This is the more dramatic choice, but it can also have a more dramatic impact on your finances. Given regional differences in housing prices, cost of living, and incomes, you could conceivably move to a different part of the country where you could buy a home for a fraction of what it would cost in your current city.

While a household needs to earn more than $90,000 a year to afford a median-priced home in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles, and haul in a hefty six-figure salary to do the same in San Diego ($111,666) or San Francisco ($161,110), you could afford the average home in Pittsburgh on a household income of just $31,508, according to an analysis by HSH.com. A household salary of $50,000, meanwhile, should be enough to purchase a median-priced home in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Tampa.

While a house in Pittsburgh costs just a third of what it would in Boston, salaries aren’t that much lower: According to Salary.com’s Cost of Living Wizard, someone earning $90,000 in Boston would fetch about $79,900 in Pittsburgh – enough to afford TWO houses there.

Of course, you’ll need to make sure a new city has ample job opportunities in your field – a cheaper house won’t do much good if you don’t have a job to pay for it. Check a salary site such as PayScale.com to see what people in your profession earn in different areas. And remember that, while you may have to take a pay cut to live in a cheaper city, that money will go farther on just about everything – not just housing.

Some buyers out there are certainly testing the waters with this approach, looking outside their high-priced cities at more mid-tier ones. A study on migration patterns by real estate brokerage Redfin showed that one in five users was searching for a home in a different city in the second quarter of 2017. In San Francisco, for example, where the median home price tops $1 million, the most frequently searched alternative was Sacramento, Calif., where homes sell for a third of the price. And as expensive as Boston is, it was the top out-of-market search among New York-area house hunters, who are trying to escape even higher prices.

In an era where working remotely has grown more commonplace and video chats make it easier to keep in touch with friends and family, picking up and moving isn’t as crazy as it sounds – especially if you’re young and untethered. But if you’ve established your career and a network of friends in a city, it can be difficult to uproot all that.

Katrina Rodabaugh and David Szlasa were renting a 650-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, Calif., when they decided they’d have to look beyond the Bay Area for their first home. “We had our first son in that apartment, and converted our walk-in closet with windows into his bedroom. It was 6′ x 8′, or 48 square feet,” Rodabaugh says. “When we were pregnant with our second son, I waved my flag of surrender.”

With no affordable alternative in the Bay Area, they looked back East, north of New York City. “We’re both originally from Upstate New York and my husband lived in New York City for a decade, so when we were priced out of the Bay Area we started looking in the Hudson Valley.”

After 10 years in Oakland, it wasn’t an easy decision. “It was hard to leave the Bay Area, as we were so embedded in the arts community and had deep connections there,” Rodabaugh says. “But it was easy to see that buying a farmhouse where our kids could go to great public schools and we could have a big garden and convert a barn into our art studios and where our monthly mortgage would be less than our monthly rent, well, that just seemed to make sense in the long run.”

Nor was it an easy process. Summer after summer, while visiting friends and family in Upstate New York for a few weeks at a time, they’d frantically squeeze in home visits. “Then in January 2015, I was seven months pregnant with our second son and my husband went to New York City for work,” Rodabaugh says. “And he called our realtor and saw six places in the Hudson Valley while he visited. That’s when he found our house. I never saw it. I never walked through it.” Such is house hunting from 3,000 miles away.

It was a leap of faith with a tough landing. “Moving across the country with two small children was no small feat. We’re fairly resourceful and pretty handy, but we had no idea what we were undertaking in DIY renovating a 200-year-old house,” Rodabaugh says. When they moved in October, she says, “It was unusually cold, and we’d just moved from California, and all our belongings were in a Pod two weeks behind us. Including our coats. So I was freezing. And the aesthetic repairs were much more extensive than I imagined. It was completely overwhelming. But two years later, it feels amazing. We own it.”

They found the leap from city to country living almost as jarring as the cross-country move itself. “I grew up in a rural New York environment, so I have some memory of country life and four seasons,” Rodabaugh says. “But raising children in a cold and hot climate with a huge orchard and forest behind our house—well, it’s beautiful, but it’s also challenging.”

For one thing, she wasn’t expecting so many critters. “Groundhogs in the garden; mice in the car engines; scheduled local firewood deliveries; stockpiling fallen leaves for our compost bin; deliberating between adding insulation to our basement, replacing windows, or rerouting plumbing pipes—these are not the things I imagined when I dreamed of a farmhouse in the country,” Rodabaugh says.

“But then watching my kids race to the garden to pick strawberries, eat sweet peas from the vine, curl up next to the woodstove with picture books, and romp around the heaps of snow with utter glee—these things bring more joy than I ever imagined,” she adds. “We just finished the first round of renovations for our carriage barn, and I hosted a huge photo shoot in the barn and I actually got teary—it was even better than I ever imagined. Dreams do come true.”

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