Top 10 Cities for First-Time Home Buyers—and Not Just Because They’re Affordable
OK, let’s get it right out there: It’s a seriously tough time to be trying to buy your first home. Yes, in most respects the housing business is doing great. But the dazzling nationwide sales boom cuts both ways: Across the U.S., low inventory has put the squeeze on potential home buyers, driving prices up to nosebleed-inducing levels and sparking scary bidding wars. And first-time mortgages? They’re harder than ever to snag.
The numbers tell the tale: The National Association of Realtors® reported in November that the share of first-time buyers had declined in 2015 for the third consecutive year and remained at its lowest point in nearly three decades. First-time buyers made up 32% of all buyers in 2015, down from 33% the year before.
So where can today’s committed-but-oh-so-frustrated housing newbies turn?
We’ve got you covered! Bypassing today’s unabashed and unbowed metro seller’s markets (See ya, Seattle! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Dallas!), we set out to find places that are still newbie-friendly. But we weren’t just looking for the cheapest places. Yes, affordability is key, but if you’re doling out your life savings on a new home, you want an area where you’ll actually enjoy living! Right? So we made sure that our top 10 cities bring something extra special to the party, lifestylewise.
We focused on the 25-to-34 age group, which is the vast majority of first-time home buyers. We filtered the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas using the following criteria:
- Affordability, measured by home price to income ratio for 25- to 34-year-olds (the lower the better)
- Inventory, with enough houses available that you don’t have to camp out at open houses or sell your firstborn to get your chance—measured by the number of homes for sale per 1,000 households
- Mortgage availability, measured by the share of home loans purchased by 25- to 34-year-olds
- Job growth, measured by lower-than-average unemployment rate (because unemployment and new homes are a lousy combo)
- Livability, measured by the number of restaurants, schools, retailers, health care facilities, and arts and entertainment venues per 1,000 households
- Portland, ME
Median price: $304,000
What you don’t know about Portland: Yeah, sure, the West Coast’s Portland gets all the press, the hipster cred (and notoriety), and even a decent TV show to call its own. But here’s the deal: The largest city in Maine is no less hip, cool, and fun to live in. And it has way better lobster.
A foodist’s paradise nestled on the Atlantic coast, Portland has a slew of catch-of-the-day seafood restaurants and a thriving microbrew scene—Allagash Brewing Co. produces 45,000 barrels of beer each year. And check out that unemployment rate—one-third lower than the national average of 5.2%.
- Philadelphia, PA
Median price: $222,000
What you don’t know about Philly: Plenty of New Yorkers are fleeing the City So Nice They Named It Twice for Philly, with almost 27,000 people making the transition per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many seem to relish escaping the crazy real estate prices of NYC without giving up big-city amenities.
So what’s the appeal?
Well, you’ve got Ukee Washington, Denzel‘s second cousin and quite possibly the coolest news anchor in America. You have perhaps the most loyal sports fans in the country. And you can get a “citywide special”—a can of PBR and a shot of Jim Beam—for just a few bucks across town. The United States’ first capital is rich in history and has recovered from a bad patch—no longer known as “Killadelphia,” its violent crime rate declined 20% from 2009 to 2014, according to the FBI.
- St. Louis, MO
Median price: $164,000
What you don’t know about St. Louis: Besides the Cardinals and the city’s namesake barbecue, there’s plenty more to celebrate in St. Louis.
Led by Washington University, more than a dozen universities and colleges boost the city’s IQ and keep the vibe young. You dig nature? You can spend weeks hanging in Forest Park, which is nearly 50% bigger than Central Park. And the city has two separate downtowns, each with its own gestalt. Housing prices have been low, partly because of the sluggish economy after the recession that erased thousands of jobs. But the city has finally made a comeback, adding 6,900 jobs in February and posting a declining unemployment rate. Eight Fortune 500 companies now call St. Louis home.
- Allentown, PA
Median price: $188,000
What you don’t know about Allentown: While the song “Allentown” by Billy Joel reminds us of the decline of the coal and steel industry (and still makes us sob), Allentown is en route to aggressive economic redevelopment.
Today the city hosts multinational companies such as Pennsylvania Power and Light and Air Products & Chemicals. Allentown also has Pennsylvania’s highest beer production by volume, and the Lehigh Valley area makes up the state’s fastest-growing wine region. And contrary to its grungy/gritty rep, there are more acres of parkland here than in any other city of this size. Take that, Billy!
- Albany, NY
Median price: $238,000
What you don’t know about Albany: The capital of New York state is having a renaissance. The effort to build a “Tech Valley” since 1998 has paid off with thriving new businesses, residential development, entertainment, and a cultural scene. Every spring, Albany celebrates its Dutch heritage with the Tulip Festival, featuring more than 200,000 tulips, fine art shows, crafts, and gardening exhibits. And you haven’t lived until you’ve tried an Albany fish fry. Or at least you haven’t lived well.
- Harrisburg, PA
Median price: $168,000
What you don’t know about Harrisburg: Tech may not be something this central Pennsylvania city is known for, but it may be in the future. In the past few years, at least 18 tech companies have sprouted in this midsize city. Benefiting from the tech wave, downtown Harrisburg has become a hugely popular northeastern destination stop for great live entertainment, especially music—from jazz to indie to hip-hop.
- Baton Rouge, LA
Median price: $217,000
What you don’t know about Baton Rouge: With a median age of 34.7 for its population, Baton Rouge is Louisiana’s youngest major metro area (the credit goes to Louisiana State University, which is based there).
About 80 miles from New Orleans, Baton Rouge knows how to do Mardi Gras right. Each year thousands flock to the city for festive carnivals, costume balls, and six different parades (including one just for pets). Increasingly a nouveau hipster haven, the city has the highest share (52%) of mortgages purchased by 25- to 34-year-olds among all the markets we studied.
- Dayton, OH
Median price: $115,000
What you don’t know about Dayton: Bike culture may be awesomely hip now, but Daytonians have been biking en masse for a long, long time. They drafted the nation’s first regional bikeway plans, which were adopted in 1973. Since then, the 300 miles of scenic Miami Valley Trail—the nation’s largest paved trail network—have seen generations of cyclists. With a median home price of just $115,000, Dayton is no longer a place to fly over or drive through—it’s a place to stay and live large.
- Minneapolis, MN
Median price: $294,000
What you don’t know about Minneapolis: America’s second fittest city, Minneapolis boasts more than 200 miles of bike lanes and 5,000 acres of parkland. Twelve Fortune 500 companies, including Target, and numerous small businesses keep unemployment low and income high.
America’s (purportedly) most literate city also hosts Open Book, the country’s biggest book art center, and the Chanhassen, its largest dinner theater. And Mary Richards lived here. Questions?
- Virginia Beach, VA
Median price: $256,000
What you don’t know about Virginia Beach: Pharrell Williams was born and raised here, and his song “Happy” could easily serve as the official town anthem . After all, with sun-drenched beaches dotted with swimmers, sunbathers, and volleyball players, how could anyone not be happy? Plus, the city’s majority of low-density neighborhoods are perfect for those who hate crowded city living.
We’re in such a celebratory mood, we almost hate turning our eyes to the worst markets for first-time home buyers. Almost.
New York and San Francisco, you say? If the two cities had a penny for each time someone complained about their sky-high housing prices, the money could probably fund many buyers’ down payments. But for many people, the excitement and job opportunities of those cities are worth the price.
By our calculation, the worst markets are where climbing home prices and plunging inventory are not sustained by employment and infrastructure—or any real sense of fun. Because fun rules!
Spoiler alert: The bottom five markets are all in California. As Jonathan Smoke, our chief economist, points out, those markets are affected by the “spillover” effect of being in California—filled with people looking for alternatives to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
- Stockton, CA
Median price: $340,000
- Fresno, CA
Median price: $262,000
- Bakersfield, CA
Median price: $222,000
- Sacramento, CA
Median price: $428,000
- Riverside, CA
Median price: $344,000
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