Hoping to Buy a Home in 2020? The Easiest and Toughest Places to Find One
Hey, home buyers, just how stressed out are you these days?
Maybe you’ve finally come to grips with the crazy, sky’s-the-limit prices still sweeping through most major markets. Perhaps you’ve made peace with the ever-looming threat of another recession. Quite possibly you’ve even dismissed all that stuff about a coronavirus pandemic, and you’re blithely unconcerned about any aftershocks from the upcoming elections.
But when it comes to finding available homes on the market—where and when you want to buy ’em—well, that’s a challenge even the most battle-tested wannabe homeowners are struggling with these days.
And make no mistake: It is a battlefield out there. The problem is, there just aren’t enough homes on the market to satisfy all of the would-be buyers—and that causes prices to spike ever higher in many parts of the country.
Nationally, inventory plunged 13.6% in January compared with a year earlier, representing the biggest drop in more than four years. Few markets have been immune to the plunge. There are now 164,000 fewer homes on the market, the fewest number since 2012, when realtor.com® began collecting the data.
In some of the tightest markets, well-priced homes in the most sought-after locations can sell within a few hours of going up for sale. In others, there are enough properties for sale that buyers don’t need to make a split-second decision and can be choosier.
That’s why our economics team searched for the metropolitan areas where it’s easiest to buy a home—and where it’s not.
“Inventory is falling—even in the easiest markets to buy a home,” says realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale. “For buyers, it means there are fewer options to choose from, they have to make quicker decisions when they’re out there shopping, and they’re probably also dealing with rising prices.”
And while this may sound like a bonanza for sellers, keep in mind that most of them are also in the market to buy a new home. So there’s that.
To come up with our findings, we looked at the number of listings per 1,000 homeowner-occupied households in the 100 largest metros in the fourth quarter of 2019. The analysis was based on the number of homes for sale relative to the local population. And we narrowed our findings to one per state for some geographic variety.
So where can buyers get a home without losing their mind, and where would they want to sign up for meditation and relaxation classes? Let’s dig into the findings—and the trends they’re showing.
At first blush, the metros with the most homes on the market may not seem like they have much in common. But many of the metros in this hodgepodge are in the South, a less expensive part of the U.S. long popular with retirees and second-home seekers. But many of the cities in our rankings have strong economies, drawing younger buyers as well.
You want to buy a home fast? Head to Florida!
Why does the Sunshine State dominate our list of easiest places to buy a house, when nationally the trends are going the other way? After all, on our unfiltered list, Florida takes six of the 20 spots with the highest inventories of homes on the market. (We limited our list to just one metro per state.)
Well, some of it is seasonal: Florida’s busy real estate season kicks off in the fall, when the Northerners and Midwesterners head south. Sunshine State sellers begin planting those “For Sale” signs in the yards and listing their homes in earnest toward the end of the year, unlike the rest of the country, which heats up in the spring and summer.
But it’s also a function of the fact that builders are currently stepping up new construction to meet the greater demands of a tsunami of retiring boomers.
Reasonably priced Cape Coral, a city with about 400 miles of canals on Florida’s southwestern coast making it popular with vacation home buyers and seniors, snagged our top spot. The area has been affected by recent hurricanes and toxic blue-green algae blooms in recent years, which may be why the area has a bit more inventory than other Florida destinations.
“It has a city-suburb feeling,” says longtime Cape Coral real estate agent Nelson Rua, of Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate. “We have local mom and pop stores instead of big franchises, and geographically we’re very well-protected by the storms because we have these barrier islands in front of us.”
The metro’s median home list price was $325,050 in January, according to realtor.com data.
While Cape Coral inventory may seem high, at 37.9 properties per 1,000 households, it’s still falling compared with the previous year. And that’s something it has in common with all of the other Florida entries on our larger list (including Miami, Deltona, North Port, and Jacksonville). Lower mortgage interest rates have spurred more buyers to take the plunge, and inventory in Cape Coral actually plunged 22% year over year in January.
Starter and more affordable homes tend to go quick, while the more expensive ones can linger on the market, according to Brad O’Connor, chief economist of the Florida Realtors, the state’s Realtors association.
It’s just easier to find a home in beach and retirement destinations
For many of the same reasons as in Florida, it’s easier to find homes in beach and retirement destinations with strong economies, like Charleston, SC (No. 3), and Virginia Beach, VA (No. 4). South Carolina and Virginia are both tax-friendly states, appealing to those living on fixed incomes, and both have lots of good jobs and are more friendly toward builders.
Charleston has its port, Boeing and Volvo plants, and a thriving tourism industry driving the economy. And its old-world-style cobblestone streets, hanging moss, gorgeous architecture, and renowned food scene may be why buyers are coming up with the metro’s median list price of $422,500. (That’s about 29% more than the national median of $300,000.)
Real estate broker Randy Bazemore, of Century 21 Properties Plus, is seeing lots of 55-and-up buyers moving to the area as well as younger professionals working in the tech industry.
Meanwhile, Virginia Beach has one of the largest military presences in the nation with more than 86,000 active-duty personnel stationed in the area. The median list price there is $310,000.
For well-heeled retirees or second-home buyers, Honolulu (No. 10), with a median list price of $655,050, has plenty of options for sale.
Watch: The 4 Markets Where Homes Are Appreciating Fastest
New construction gives inventory a boost—at least in some places
Lack of new real estate construction in much of the country has been a big problem ever since the housing crash brought everything to a dead stop more than a decade ago. Finally things are picking up again—at least in those markets where permitting is easier, labor is cheaper, and plenty of land is available for builders to put up more homes.
Often, these places also have fewer regulations, which can hold up the process. That’s partly why Las Vegas (No. 5), Des Moines, IA (No, 8), and Houston (No. 9) made the list. Charleston, as well as many of the Florida metros, has also seen a lot of new construction.
In Des Moines, there’s new construction in the suburbs to the north and west of the city, says local associate broker Paul Walter of Re/Max Concepts. But there are also just more folks putting their existing homes up for sale. Those two reasons may be why the metro area saw a 3% bump in inventory, the only one in our top 10 to not be lower in inventory compared with the previous year.
“Homes not being underwater would be the big driver” in the increase in inventory, says Walter.
The other metros that made our top 10 were Bridgeport, CT, at No. 2. The city has more inventory as there’s less demand than in other parts of the country thanks to the state’s shaky economy and high taxes.
Get ready for a shocker: New York City came in at No. 6! That’s because its metro area is so enormous, there are homes for sale in the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, and smaller cities, including on Long Island and in upstate New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Plus, while there’s basically no such thing as affordable homes for sale in Manhattan, there is a glut of luxury condos sitting on the market waiting for uber-rich buyers with millions of dollars to come around—$1.7 million studio condo, anyone?
OK, now let’s go to the dark side—the metros where you’ll have to jump on new listings the moment they hit your inbox. Get ready!
Buyers are having a tough time in tech cities
No surprise here: The tightest U.S. real estate markets are the ones with blazing hot job markets—and these days that usually means tech hubs. And these places often have pricey real estate to match their blazing economies. There’s a constant influx of new workers, all slugging it out for a very limited supply of housing.
Silicon Valley’s San Jose, CA, which had the fewest homes for sale, is also one of the most expensive markets in the country. There are just four, yes four, listings per 1,000 households. That kind of shortage explains why the median list price is just a hair under $1.1 million. If we hadn’t capped our ranking at just one metro per state, fellow astronomically pricey tech metropolis San Francisco would be close behind.
Unfortunately, not all tech workers make seven- or eight-figure salaries, causing them to search for homes farther and farther out from city centers—and their gigs.
But inventory is likely to rise, at least a little, in the coming months, says Patrick Carlisle, the chief market analyst for the San Francisco Bay Area for Compass. “This market takes a while to wake up from the holidays.”
Part of the problem is homeowners are staying in their properties longer so there isn’t much turnaround, says Carlisle. When they do move out, owners often rent out their properties and pocket the lucrative income instead of putting them on the market. And the lack of new construction is exacerbating the crunch. What is erected often skews luxury, well out of the price ranges of most buyers.
In Seattle, home of the online retailing giant Amazon.com—and No. 3 on our tightest inventory list—a simple equation is responsible for the lack of housing, according to Chris Bajuk, a local real estate agent at HomeStart Real Estate Associates.
“When people have good-paying jobs plus low interest rates, that’s fuel for the fire,” he says.
Plus, there’s not much available land for builders. The city and outlying suburbs are constrained by water, mountains, and zoning rules.
Other tech meccas on our list include Salt Lake City (No. 6), aka Silicon Slopes; Boston (No. 7), a financial, higher education, and tech center; and Washington, DC (No. 9). The real estate market in DC has exploded since Amazon announced it would be installing its second headquarters just outside of the nation’s capital, employing thousands of tech workers.
Inventory is drying up in the Rust Belt’s comeback cities
On the opposite side of the booming, ultraexpensive tech meccas are the Rust Belt cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Some of these urban meccas have been investing in their downtowns and staging comebacks, becoming more appealing to buyers and investors seeking affordable real estate without sacrificing amenities. And many folks want to get in while they still can afford to buy.
The one-time industrial hub of Buffalo, NY, which sits on the Canadian border near Niagara Falls, came in second place. If we didn’t cap our list at just one metro per state, nearby Rochester, NY, would have been next in our rankings.
Buffalo’s revitalization is attracting folks from other parts of the country, says associate real estate broker Ryan Connolly of Re/Max Plus. The Buffalo metro’s median list price was $197,950 in January—about a third less than the national median.
“We are seeing incredibly, incredibly low inventory levels,” says Connolly. The number of homes for sale fell 16% year over year in January, to 6.1 listings per 1,000 households. “It’s really frustrating for buyers.”
That’s leading to multiple offers and folks offering over the asking price on homes in good shape during the busy season. It’s so bad that about a year ago, he saw 23 offers come in on a three-bed, two-bath ranch home in a Buffalo suburb.
“It was a nice home, be we weren’t expecting that,” Connolly says.
Buyers are also clamoring for homes in Columbus, OH, which earned the fifth spot in our ranking. It’s the capital of Ohio and home to Ohio State University and its roughly 45,000 students—buoying it economically. But there simply aren’t enough homes to go around.
“When we had the recession, we didn’t build any new houses. [And] we’re still not building enough homes,” says real estate agent Jeff Cotner of Re/Max One in Pickerington, OH, a Columbus suburb. “The inventory shortage is not going to go anywhere for a while.”