Last fall, Kit Kester, 32, and his wife decided it was time to make the giant leap into first-time homeownership. But they didn’t consider relocating to job-packed San Francisco, breakfast-taco-loving Austin, TX, mustache-obsessed Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or any of the other infamous millennial hotspots across the United States. Instead they centered their search on their hometown of Lincoln, NE. By October, they had purchased a three-bedroom, split-level home in the suburban neighborhood of Highlands for $180,000.
“We got tired of paying rent and throwing money away,” says the maintenance supervisor and father of a young child. “And we really liked the idea of having a home for my daughter to grow up in.”
Millennials bought 36% of homes last year, the highest share of any generational group, according to the National Association of Realtors®. Of that 36%, 65% went to first-time home buyers. But this vast army of buyers faces some unique challenges in their transition from renters to owners, including crushing debt loads and one of the tightest and most competitive housing markets in history. They may be buying homes in big numbers, but they can’t afford to do so in the nation’s largest, most expensive cities. Instead, many younger buyers are opting for more affordable—and unexpected—parts of the country.
But where? The data team at realtor.com decided to find out where younger Americans make up the largest percentage of purchasers, by looking at who is getting mortgages and where they’re getting ’em.
What we found flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to what they can afford,” says Roger Ma, a real estate agent and owner of Life Laid Out, a New York-based company that helps people reach their financial goals. “They might have started their careers in very expensive metros areas like [Washington] DC or San Francisco. But as they age, they often want to settle down and look for a home in a reasonably priced location.”
We used Pew Research Center’s definition of millennials: those born between 1981 and 1996—who are now anywhere from 22 to the ripe old age of 36.Then we calculated the share of buyers within that age group who bought homes over the past 12 months in the 200 largest housing markets.
Now let’s take a tour of the new millennial meccas!
1. Appleton, WI
Median home list price: $150,000
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials*: 57%
Millennials, it’s said, are a generation about instant gratification. They want everything, and they want it now. Broad generalizations, sure, but in Appleton, young home buyers really are focused on having it all.
“They want an updated home, something with a new kitchen, updated bathrooms, and a large yard,” says Carolyn Stark, a real estate agent at Keller Williams Fox Cities. “You can see the look on their faces when they see places that have been renovated, and have new flooring and carpet—that makes them happy.”
Suburban communities in Appleton with lots of move-in-ready houses, for example in Kimberly, WI, are in high demand. Young buyers with families love the public school system, the short drive from the city center—and the fact that the median home price is an affordable $145,000, according to realtor.com.
There are also plenty of things for the younger crowd to do. You catch them flocking to the Appleton Beer Factory, a brewpub downtown that serves up burgers, fries, and, of course, beer, or boating or jet-skiing on nearby Lake Winnebago.
And the locals aren’t shy around their alcohol. In 2016, 24/7 Wall Street named Appleton the Drunkest City in America—a title that doesn’t seem to bother this crowd much.
Median home list price: $294,000
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 56.9%
Renting in Des Moines isn’t what it use to be—it’s a whole lot more expensive. The median monthly rent price here is now $996, up 6.8% from a year ago, according to the latest U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development numbers. And so a lot of these buyers have wised up and realized that rent is often higher than a mortgage.
“The cost of a lease keeps going up,” says Bryan Curtis, a broker at Attain RE in Des Moines. “People are looking at the grand scheme of things when it comes to their finances, and see [buying a home as] one of the best investments.”
Now, Des Moines isn’t exactly cheap. The median home price is a bit higher than the national median of $279,900, according to realtor.com data. But many first-time buyers are taking advantage of federally backed mortgage loans that don’t require the 20% down payment, Curtis says. They can put down as little as 3% if they qualify for the right loans.
That’s not to say that many buyers can’t afford larger down payments. There are plenty of good jobs in the area, including those at Meredith Corp., which, after its purchase of Time, Inc., is now America’s largest magazine publisher. A gig at Progressive Farmer, perhaps?
“It’s still affordable to own a home in Iowa. That is what’s driving people here,” Curtis says.
3. Utica, NY
Median home list price: $139,500
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 56.8%
For much of the 20th century, Utica was known as the Sin City of the East. The city’s mob oversaw a slew of illegal activities in the area. But the only mob you’ll find in Utica now is the huge number of younger buyers chasing the newest listings in this city about four and a half hours north of New York City.
These days, millennials might know Utica best as the home of one of the worst branches of Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company featured on “The Office.”
Of the places we ranked, Utica has by far the lowest home price. Around the city’s median price point, you’ll find lots of older, single-family homes in the upstate city’s downtown.
Those willing to drop a bit more cash can get a much swankier home. Take this brick, two-story, four-bedroom home of 2,400 square feet, priced at $297,000. The home has a koi pond and a winding rock pathway that leads right up to the front door.
4. Provo, UT
Median home list price: $376,700
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 56.5%
Most of the places on our list are all about reasonably priced housing. The exception is Provo, where home prices are almost $100,000 more than the national median.
But high prices aren’t locking younger buyers out of the market here, because wages are also good. The city is home to Brigham Young University, Ancestry.com, and plenty of start-ups where computer coders can earn a fine living. That earned the city a spot on our our ranking of top metros for the middle class.
Provo homes cost a bit less than those in nearby Salt Lake City, at a median nearly $394,000. The larger city, about 45 minutes north, was ranked as one of the toughest housing markets for millennials by realtor.com.
Many first-time buyers are moving to more family-friendly, suburban communities like Cedar Hills, around 25 minutes from downtown Provo, where they can snag larger homes. Just look at this 3,400 square-foot, five-bedroom Rambler-style home, priced at $479,000.
And all the 1990s kids who grew up watching “Jurassic Park” over and over are sure to dig (get it?) the dino fossils at the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology.
5. Duluth, MN
Median home list price: $175,000
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 56.3%
Located on the banks of Lake Superior and in the state of 10,000 Lakes, Duluth is perfect for millennials who want to be far away from city life.
The homes younger buyers are gravitating to reflect that outdoor lifestyle. There are lots of affordable cabins in the woods, or two-story homes on huge sprawling properties with a lake or two in the backyard.
The younger crowd can make good money here. The area is home to one of the Midwest’s largest ports, and it has a strong manufacturing and aviation sector. Lots of big-name engineering firms, like Enbridge and Barr Engineering, have offices here too.
Median home list price: $210,100
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 56.3%
For many Californians or New Yorkers, owning a home by the time they reach 30 can seem like climbing K2. But by that age in Lafayette, buyers have often bought their second home already, says Justin Netterville, a local real estate agent at Rome Realty.
“They want open floor plans, everything updated over [the last] five years, granite countertops, and 1,700 to 2,200 square feet, because they probably have two kids at that point,” he says. And they can get it without breaking the bank.
The area has lots of oil field and machine shop jobs that pay entry-level wages of between $30,000 to $50,000—enough in this market to qualify for a first-time mortgage. But buyers had better be quick. One-story ranches in the suburbs for under $200,000 are moving off the market at a rapid pace, Netterville says.
Lafayette offers things for families to do as well. To escape the summer heat, residents can stop by the family-fave Borden’s Ice Cream. And it wouldn’t be Louisiana without a few alligator exhibits, like the one on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Full disclosure: In 2016 one these critters escaped and took a stroll around campus.
Median home list price: $275,000
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 56%
Lancaster’s location, about an hour and a half from Philadelphia and just over two hours from NYC and DC, makes it appealing for buyers fleeing those higher-priced cities. However, these transplants are still city folk at heart, so they’re often buying homes downtown.
“It feels like half of New York is moving here, because everything there is so darn expensive,” says Darrell Coyle, a local real estate agent at Charles & Associates. “They can’t get a doghouse in New York for the price [of Lancaster homes].”
These buyers want townhomes with character built in the early 1900s, Coyle says.
“The younger folks want to live in the historic district and walk to the nightlife, great restaurants, and shopping,” Coyle says of the downtown, which is undergoing a resurgence. “The city has rooftop bars with grass yards that overlook the city.”
Just outside the city is the country’s oldest Amish settlement. Locals can stop by and snag the best Whoopie Pie of their lives—a treat some claim originated in Lancaster County. Just be mindful of the horses and buggies.
Median home list price: $245,100
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 55.5%
Lovers of Starbucks’ Peppermint Mocha can thank Kalamazoo for those minty, buzzy beverages. In the late 19th century, Albert Todd (aka the Peppermint King of Kalamazoo,) refined peppermint flavoring. But nowadays, the region is leading the pack for something just as sweet: homeownership.
Millennials here are snapping up homes left and right. Some of that is due to the fact that the increasing rents have made homeownership ever more appealing. (The median monthly rent climbed to $936, up 4.1% from a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development).
But that’s not all. Homes here are reasonably priced, and the huge life sciences industry—pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and biomedical firms— put these millennials in a position to afford them.
Some of the younger folks also may have larger down payments thanks to the Kalamazoo Promise. It covers up to 100% of tuition and fees for locals to attend public colleges in the state—a great deal for those who don’t want to rack up student loan debt.
9. Lincoln, NE
Median home list price: $313,800
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 55.4%
Many young people here are in a good place to transition to homeownership, particularly if they work in the region’s burgeoning tech hub. Lincoln and other Midwest cities, like the Omaha area, have gained the nickname Silicon Prairie, thanks to schools like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln churning out skilled graduates.
That’s partly behind the uptick in millennials closing on homes of their own, says Mark Meierdierks, a real estate agent at Nebraska Realty.
Many are trying to buy in neighborhoods like Highlands, about a 15-minute commute from downtown. It’s filled with both one-story ranches and two-story split-level homes. Most of the community’s homes were built in the 1970s and ’80s, and if the home has been remodeled, it will catch this age group’s attention, Meierdierks says.
“Their parents had a good house, so they want what their parents had, and they can afford to buy it now,” Meierdierks says. “They want to live the American dream.”
10. Evansville, IN
Median home list price: $170,800
Percentage of mortgages issued to millennials: 55.2%
Evansville is located right on the banks of the Ohio River in southern Indiana. The downtown is full of single-family homes that date back about 100 years, many with views of the river that weaves through the region. There are plenty of new or newly remodeled homes, too, with the open designs that millennial buyers crave.
The strong economy has put cash in the hands of younger folks here. The region is the headquarters for companies like Accuride Corporation, a vehicle components supplier, and Berry Global, a Fortune 500 plastic packaging maker.
“Evansville is a very affordable city,” says local real estate agent Trae Dauby of Keller Williams Capital Realty. “The bulk of our buyers right now are first-time home buyers, probably between the ages of 22 and 35.”
They’re typically local couples scooping up two- and three-bedroom houses on the suburban outskirts of the city, he says.
Buyers with some cash left over can head over to the Tropicana Evansville, a 45,000-square-foot casino in downtown. And sports fans can root for one of the local teams, like the Evansville Thunderbolts, a minor league hockey team, or the city’s minor league baseball team. Go, Otters!
* Calculated using using Optimal Blue mortgage data.
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