Saturday, February 18, 2006
When the Omegas moved to Small University Town, eight years ago, they looked at houses in what they thought was their affordability range (the bankers said we could look higher--hah!). They finally found a house they liked in Hippy Dippy Forest Enclave, settled in, explored the area. They watched as housing prices started going up. They wondered--at that time--just how families who didn't have two professional incomes could afford to buy anything. Each year, the prices kept going up. Each year, more and more folks from other states, fleeing the outrageous housing costs there, would move in. These folks, flush with cash from the sale of their outrageously expensive "average" homes, would gasp in delight at the kind of home they could buy here, free and clear (just like OmegaMom drooled over housing prices in Small Town, Alaska). They didn't really care that much what the asking price was; bidding wars would break out, and houses would sell for more than the asking price. And prices kept going up. OmegaMom works in the department of Mountain University that provides the basic services that MU needs to keep going--grounds, maintenance, custodial, planning and development, stuff like that. The department does everything from taking out the garbage to building brand-new, LEED-certified, swanky new academic buildings. This department has the majority of the lowest-paid employees of MU. There are workers here who have to think long and hard if they can afford to plunk down a couple of dollars for a lunch out. They budget. They scrimp and save. Still, the majority of them simply cannot afford to purchase a home here. Some rent. Some co-house. Some live as far away as 40, 50 miles, just so they can afford to purchase some property. MU has a problem attracting new employees from elsewhere. It's gorgeous here. The community is lively. There's skiing, hiking, entertainment, beautiful scenery. People come here and fall in love with the area. But the potential out-of-town employee, being a smart cookie, looks into the cost of living here, and inevitably hits the housing cost...and professors and IT professionals and business managers and what-have-you weigh the pluses against the housing costs and regretfully bow out. As an example, OmegaMom poked around the city website and some realty listings. The city website's "community profile" says that the median family income is $52,050. It shows that 20% of the working folks here work in so-called "service jobs"--like the folks in OmegaMom's department. A further 27% work in "office or sales" positions. Right there you have the lowest paying categories: service and office/sales. (Interestingly enough, the community profile does not include anything about housing.) Then OmegaMom went off to this handy-dandy little "How much can you afford to buy" calculator. The calculator says a hypothetical family with an itty bitty hypothetical debt burden of $150 per month, an estimated monthly tax/insurance burden of $116 (pretty sure that's low), and that median income of $52,050 can borrow $183,197, and can "afford" to purchase a $243,000 house. If that down payment were reduced to $30,000, the house this fictitious family could buy would be $213,000. OmegaMom bopped onto Realtor.com and did a search. The lowest price she could find for a single-family house here was $249,000. The next one in the listing was $269,000. It just goes up from there. She found 10 mobile homes that this family could afford with the small down payment, 17 if they could wangle the big down payment. It's a wonder Small University Town doesn't implode.