For the majority of homes, buying is cheaper than renting. But as home prices rise faster than incomes and mortgage rates slowly head upwards, the question of national affordability becomes ever more germane.
Compared to the longer-term past, homeownership still looks relatively affordable as home prices remain undervalued and mortgage rates remain near historic lows. However, affordability for the middle class in some areas of the nation is becoming problematic.
In a blog post, Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko notes that certain discrepancies do arise, specifically along the coasts, for middle-class homeownership.
Kolko explains his methodology of defining what counts as “middle class” and what counts as affordable before breaking down nationwide trends: Affordability is based on whether a home's monthly payment, which includes mortgage, insurance, and property taxes, was less than 31 percent of the surrounding metro's median household income. The designation "middle class" is fluid, dependent upon each metro's local median household income.
Kolko found that the middle class is getting priced out of California but finds more success in the Midwest. In fact, in 80 of the 100 largest U.S. metros, most of the homes for sale are within reach of the middle class.
In the most affordable housing markets, more than 80 percent of homes are within reach. Akron, Ohio, tops the list at 86 percent of homes affordable for the middle class. "The 10 most affordable markets include eight in (or near) the Midwest, plus the southern markets of Columbia, South Carolina, and Little Rock, Arkansas. Five of the top 10 are in Ohio," Kolko writes.
Indeed, the top three metros for affordability include Akron, Toledo, and Dayton, Ohio, each sporting percentages above 80 percent of homes as affordable for the middle class in May 2014.
Seven of the 10 least affordable markets reside in California. Not surprisingly, the rest of the top ten is rounded out by New York City; Fairfield County, Connecticut; and Honolulu, Hawaii. San Francisco remains on top as the least affordable city in the nation, with only 14 percent of homes for sale in San Francisco affordable to the middle class, despite higher median incomes.
Education also plays a factor, affecting income, which in turn directly reflects one's ability to afford a home.
"Household income is strongly correlated with education. Median household income is $33,500 for households headed by someone with a high school degree or less, $49,300 with some college or an associate's degree, $77,500 with a bachelor's degree, and $100,000 with a graduate degree," Kolko commented.
He notes that the higher the education of a metro's population, the more homes will be available for purchase with a median income: "Take the Washington, D.C., metro area as an example: for a high-school-or-less household, just 23% of homes for sale are affordable, compared with 75% for a bachelor’s-degree household and 83% for a graduate-degree household."
Furthermore, the supply of available homes matters, with lower affordability markets experiencing a low supply from a lack of new construction, driving prices upward and out of the range of middle class families.
For America's most expensive markets to come down in price, there would have to be a subsequent drop in demand or an increase in construction. Cities like San Francisco, south Florida, and parts of the Northeast are geographically limited by their availability to construct new homes, and thus, are inherently limited in their ability to construct new homes, according to Kolko.
Unfortunately, his conclusions aren't exactly great news for the middle-class family looking to purchase a home in more expensive markets. "In all, today's unaffordable markets are likely to stay unaffordable. A collapse in demand is nothing to wish for; geographic constraints are nearly impossible to change; and strong political forces make building regulations difficult to relax," he writes.