A new study of home prices in major real estate markets across the United States answers the question federal statistics never dare to: Where are Housing costs truly bargains relative to the rest of the nation?
In other words, if you're relocated and want to buy the same house on the same-sized lot in the same sort of middle-income suburb in different parts of the United States, where do you get the most for your dollar?
Here are some of the fearless results of a series of carefully controlled private market studies this spring in 107 U.S. metropolitan areas. The study focuses on a three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,000-square-foot detached house with a family room, eat-in kitchen and adjacent garage. The home sits on a standard-sized lot in a neighborhood outside the center city of the metropolitan area, a community where "middle-level executives" typically live.
Buffalo, New York, turns out to offer the most house for your money of any large American markete. The identical house that commands a princely $325,000 in Palo Alto, Calif., 3,000 miles to the east goes for just $57,000 outside Buffalo -- one-sixth the price.
Washington, which is usually ranked among the top five most expensive areas for new or resale homes, comes in 16th, at $135,000. [The study here included the areas of Gaithersburg, Rockville, Bethesda, Camp Springs, Alexandria, Springfield and Woodbridge.]
Several of the fastest-growing, economically vigorous cities of the United States also are relative bargain areas. Norfolk, for instance, offers the "standard" house in the survey for $66,000. In Colorado Springs, Colo., it costs $66,500; in Jacksonville, Fla., $69,000; San Antonia, $70,000; and in Salt Lake City, it's $72,500.
The nearby suburbs of some of the country's largest cities are among the 35 most affordable markets. Chicago, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Memphis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Ft. Worth, Louisville and Columbus, Ohio, all offer the standard, middle-level "executive" house for $81,00 or under.
Seventeen markets want $125,000 or more for the same house. To no one's surprise, five of the top six are in California (Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Rafael, Oakland and Los Angeles), and three others from California place in the top 15: Walnut Creek, San Diego, and San Jose. A house that you'd pay $75,000 for near Cincinnati, Kansas City or Rochester, N.Y., cost $235,000 outside San Francisco, $225,000 in San Rafael, $190,000 in the Oakland area, $175,000 in Los Angeles, $147,000 in Walnut Creek and $140,000 in San Jose.
(Only in California's capital city, Sacramento, is the standard-priced, three-bedroom executive home anywhere near the more modest Eastern and Midwestern comparables. The price there is $80,000, according to the new study.)
Three of the costliest areas in the country are in Connecticut -- southern Fairfield County, Stamford and the close-in bedroom suburbs bordering New York -- all with prices of $160,000 or more.
Miami and Ft. Lauderdale place 10th and 17th ($150,000 and $125,000, respectively) in the upper-bracket group.
The comprehensive survey was conducted by Nationwide Relocation Service, Inc., a Chicago-based subsidiary of Coldwell-Banker Corp., the real estate finance and brokerage giant. Nationwide Relocation and Coldwell-Banker used four to five different locations within each of the 107 metropolitan markets -- chosen by their own local brokers or executive relocation service members -- to come up with the survey data this spring.
The local participants all had a detailed series of criteria to follow, including house size, amenities and neighborhood specifications.
"The results aren't absolute," says David Garretson, the Nationwide vice presidnet who coordinated the study, "but they constitute the most accurate and meaningful guage of relative house prices that I'm aware of." The figures are designed to tell a typical corporate transferee in one part of the United States what to expect in housing prices in his or her new location.
Unlike federal surveys which concentrate on the average prices of newly constructed or resale homes -- the size, shape and location of which vary widely from market to market -- the Nationwide study sought to isolate "one house, the same house and environment, as closely as possible," and cost it out from market to market, in Garretson's words.
The study attempts to be "neutral on the economic and subjective factors rather than make one city more or less desirable to a particular family," he adds. Such factors include prevailing salary levels, relative tax burdens, and cultural, educational and climatic attractions. It also avoided direct comparisons among central-city residential areas since such submarkets vary far more widely region-by-region than do suburban markets.
(Copies of a summary of the 107-market survey, plus comparable data for four Canadian cities and London, England, can be obtained from Nationwide at P.O. Box 310, Hinsdale, Ill., 60521, or by calling 800-323-4850.) CAPTION: Picture, This three-bedroom house in Bethesda, on sale for $134,950, nearly fits the profile of the residences compared in 107 cities. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post; Illustration, no caption, By William T. Coulter