Millennials Flock to Urban Jobs, But Meet Barriers to Housing

Real estate statistics make a compelling case for young people to consider not just salary but affordability as they decide where to live.


Young people are flocking to big, expensive cities, according to data crunched by housing market information service RealtyTrac. It’s understandable, but in the long run that might not be the greatest of ideas.

If you look at the chart below, you will see that the Washington, D.C., area occupies three of the top 10 counties where high percentages of millennials are moving in. They are also moving to places like San Francisco, Denver and New York. That’s probably not much of a surprise: Young adults go where opportunity is.

Percent change millenials chart

But opportunity is in the eye of the beholder. That second column up above helps explain why those young people aren’t buying houses, which is bad for them and for the economy. That’s the average down payment made for home purchases in those areas. (Note: This is down payment, not price.) So in Washington, D.C., the average buyer shows up with a wallet full of $100,000 or more. Avert your eyes from that San Francisco entry there. Even in Denver, which is clearly not San Francisco, the average down payment is $43,641.

Raise your hand if you knew where to get $100,000 when you were 25. That’s certainly enough to keep young people up at night, and the kind of thing I’m following in The Restless Project.

Mind you, these figures don’t represent required down payments. Plenty of folks are buying homes with far less cash. There’s even a new HUD program that allows buyers to put down as little as 3 percent of the purchase price, as long as they are willing to pay higher fees.

But nationwide, the average down payment is $31,000, or 14 percent of the home purchase price; while in the top 25 markets that are attracting millennials, the average down payment is more than twice that — $66,000 — with an average down payment of 17 percent. It’s hard enough to buy a home in a hot market without having to worry about being the bidder with the lowest down payment, which can hurt a buyer’s chances if there are multiple offers.

Taken together, it means that young folks, who, remember, are holding an average of $30,000 or so in college debt, may not really find the opportunities they are looking for in America’s big cities.

But there are alternatives.

Now look at the list below, and you’ll see some surprises — like Montgomery and Davidson in Tennessee, where the average down payment is well below the national average. And if you expand the chart a bit, you’ll find some other interesting places with growing populations of young people and affordable homes without the huge down payment barrier.

In markets like Durham, North Carolina, Columbus, Ohio, Augusta, Georgia, and Des Moines, Iowa, average down payments range within a much more reasonable $15,000-$20,000. Near Fayetteville, North Carolina, average down payments are less than $10,000. In all those cities, the millennial population has grown at least 20 percent since 2007, according to RealtyTrac’s data, and median down payments are 14 percent or less.

Best mill markets

That’s an interesting list of places. Remember, it is possible to get low-down-payment loans in places like New York and San Francisco, and that’s the right thing for many folks. It’s also important to remember that such loans have their drawbacks, like big upfront fees and/or mortgage insurance.

So, it’s worthwhile to at least consider some alternatives.

Bottom line: If you are weighing job prospects, don’t be fooled by a sexy six-figure salary. There are places in America where you can make a life, or at least start one, on half that amount. Don’t be too quick to rule them out.

(To conduct the analysis, RealtyTrac analyzed purchase, loan and sales data for single family homes and condos in 2014 in 386 counties nationwide, examining a total of 1.5 million loans.) 

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Stacy Johnson

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