The real estate crash has created some outstanding opportunities for property shoppers

By Luke Mullins

September 10, 2010

While the nation’s real estate crash has been a nightmare for homeowners, it has created some outstanding opportunities for would-be buyers. Home prices in 20 major cities dropped 33 percent from the summer of 2006 to the spring of 2009—and in certain markets, the plunge was even steeper. At the same time, the federal government’s efforts to revive the housing market have helped drive financing costs to record lows. Thirty-year fixed mortgage rates fell to an average of 4.32 percent for the week ending September 2. That’s the lowest level in nearly 40 years of record-keeping. Lower property values and dirt-cheap mortgage rates have combined to restore affordability to many real estate markets that were once wildly overpriced. “Right now, housing is about as affordable as it has been since at least the 1970s,” says Patrick Newport, a U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight.

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To see how far your real estate dollar will stretch in different places across the country, U.S. News examined housing costs on a monthly payment basis. We started with the National Association of Realtors’ median home price data for 159 distinct metropolitan statistical areas as of the second quarter of 2010. After subtracting a 20 percent down payment from a market’s median price, we plugged the remaining figure into a mortgage calculator using a 4.32 percent interest rate on a 30-year fixed loan. The exercise produces a monthly payment figure for mortgage principal and interest, which represents the bulk of most property owners’ monthly housing costs. (Note that this figure does not include monthly costs for utilities, insurance, or taxes, which can vary a great deal from one place to another. Nor does it reflect the one-time costs associated with a home purchase, such as the down payment and closing costs.) Using this calculation, here is a look at 10 places where you can buy a home for less than $800 a month.

1. Austin, Texas: Anyone who’s ever visited lovely Austin knows that it’s much more than just the capital of the Lone Star state. Great barbecue, abundant green space, and a world-class music scene have turned this city of 735,000 into one of the nation’s most beloved destinations. And as the home of the University of Texas and the heart of a dynamic local economy, Austin offers a wonderful quality of life to residents and visitors alike. The median home price in the Austin area stood at nearly $197,000 in the second quarter of this year, a slight increase from a year earlier. After a 20 percent down payment—of $39,400—monthly payments for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced home in Austin come to $782.

2. Sarasota, Fla.: Although exotic mortgage products and investor excitement sent home prices in Sarasota soaring during the housing boom, the subsequent crash hit the market as hard as anywhere in the state. Median home prices in the Sarasota area plummeted from $311,000 in 2007 to $185,000 in the second quarter of this year. But this steep drop only makes this sun-drenched community on Florida’s west coast more attractive for home buyers, says Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting. McCabe says Sarasota’s smaller size provides its residents with a more manageable lifestyle—with less traffic, for example—than big cities like Tampa Bay or Orlando. At the same time, the area has a beautiful waterfront and plenty of art museums and theater productions. Anyone considering buying property in Florida should have Sarasota at the top of their list, according to McCabe “It’s a great market,” he says. “I really expect in the next 20 years it is going to be one of the most desirable markets in Florida for baby boomers to retire.” The median home price in the Sarasota area was $185,000 in the second quarter of this year. After putting 20 percent—or $37,000—down, monthly payments for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced Sarasota area home come to $734.

3. Albuquerque, N.M.: A vibrant blend of Native American, Latino, and Anglo cultures makes Albuquerque one of the nation’s most diverse communities. Residents can explore this unique heritage through the city’s expansive menu of museums, art galleries, and theaters. Its enviable climate—which averages more than 300 days of sunshine a year—provides plenty of opportunities for golfing, biking, and hiking. During the winter months, skiers and snowboarders can hit the nearby Sandia Peak Ski Area during the winter months. The median home price in Albuquerque was $178,000 in the second quarter of this year, down about 2 percent from a year earlier. After a 20 percent down payment—or $35,600—monthly payments to cover mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced Albuquerque home are roughly $706.

4. Minneapolis/St. Paul: If you can stand the tough winters, the Minneapolis/St. Paul area is a great place for outdoor enthusiasts call home. The Twin Cities, as they are known, have more than 330 parks, and the Minneapolis metro area alone has more than 20 lakes. Golfers, meanwhile, can pick from more than 170 nearby courses. The median home price in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area was $176,000 in the second quarter of 2010, a decline of roughly 4 percent from the same period in 2009. Buyers that make a 20 percent down payment, which totals $35,200, will have monthly payments of about $698 for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced home in the area.

5. Columbus, Ohio: With a population of 733,000, Columbus is the home of Ohio State University and the state capital. This friendly Midwestern community serves as the headquarters of 14 different Fortune 1000 companies. And while Columbus rattles with enthusiasm during Ohio State’s football season, the Buckeyes aren’t the only game in town. In addition to an NHL franchise and a minor league baseball team, the area has more than 100 art galleries, 20 theater companies, and 18 museums. The median home price in Columbus was nearly $150,000 in the second quarter of this year, a 10 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. After a 20 percent down payment—of $30,000—monthly payments for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced Columbus home come to $595.

6. Phoenix, Ariz.: After appreciating substantially during the real estate boom, the median home price in the Phoenix area has dropped nearly 44 percent since 2007. Despite the recent turmoil, the area’s sunny climate and abundance of outdoor activities continue to offer a wonderful quality of life for retirees or growing families. The median home price in the Phoenix area was nearly $145,000 in the second quarter of this year. After putting 20 percent—or $29,000—down, monthly payments for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced home in the Phoenix area total about $575.

7. Columbia, S.C.: Located in the heart of South Carolina is the historic city of Columbia, the state capital. With a hot, sunny climate, the area’s more than 700,000 residents can enjoy an afternoon at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, take their boat out on Lake Murray, or stroll through the art galleries and coffee shops in the city’s entertainment districts. The median home price in Columbia was $142,000 in the second quarter of this year, up about 3 percent from the same period in 2009. Buyers that make a 20 percent down payment, which totals $28,400, will have monthly payments of about $564 for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced home in Columbia.

8. Boise, Idaho: Boise’s sunny, high-desert climate is great for checking out the 2,700 acres of parks in and around this Idaho state capital. And as the home of the Boise State University Broncos, football fans will have all the excitement they can handle on Saturdays in the fall. The median home price in the Boise area was $140,000 in the second quarter of this year, a decline of roughly 13 percent from a year earlier. After a 20 percent down payment—of $28,000—monthly payments for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced home in Boise total about $556.

9. Pittsburgh: This once-rusting steel town has spent the past quarter-century transforming its economy into an innovative center of technology, healthcare, financial services, and education. And with short commutes, popular professional sports franchises, and all sorts of outdoor activities, Pittsburgh now considers itself “America’s Most Livable City.” The median home price in Pittsburgh was $127,000 in the second quarter of this year, a modest increase from the same period in 2009. Buyers who make a 20 percent down payment, which totals $25,400, will have monthly payments of about $504 for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced home in Pittsburgh.

10. Atlanta: With a young, fast-growing population, Atlanta is an exciting city in the heart of the South. The median home price in the Atlanta area was nearly $123,000 in the second quarter of this year, up slightly from the same period a year earlier. After a 20 percent down payment—or $24,600—monthly payments for mortgage principal and interest on a median-priced Atlanta home come to $488.

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