Local housing affordability drops for second quarter in a row
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Aug 13, 2013 | 2452 views |  0 comments | 56 56 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Leah Simmons unlocks the front door of her house as a new homeowner in Jacksonville. Photo by Trent Penny.
Leah Simmons unlocks the front door of her house as a new homeowner in Jacksonville. Photo by Trent Penny.
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It was time for Leah Simmons to move out.

Simmons, 28 of Jacksonville lived with family members for months after graduating from Jacksonville State University. Though welcome to stay longer, she was ready to strike out on her own. She contacted a real estate agent looking for rental properties, but soon discovered she could afford to be a homeowner.

"I called up and was told it was a good time to buy," Simmons said. "Why spend $500 a month for rent when I could spend about the same on a mortgage payment?"

Simmons signed the dotted line on her $455-a-month, two-story Jacksonville home in July.

"It's a pretty great deal," Simmons said.

Housing in Calhoun County is very affordable compared to the state and national average, but that’s quickly changing. According to the Alabama Center for Real Estate, county housing affordability decreased more than 3 percent for the second quarter in a row this year due to rising prices. Housing industry experts say the consistent rise in prices is a strong sign the housing market is well on its way to recovery after years of stagnant sales and prices triggered by the Great Recession. However, rising prices also mean home ownership could soon escape the grasp of some area residents.

The statistics show the county had an affordability index of 290.6 in the second quarter of the year, a 3.13 percent decrease from the index of 300 the area had in the first quarter. The first quarter affordability index for the county was in turn a 3.16 percent decrease from the fourth quarter of 2012.

The affordability index is based on a point system — the higher the score, the more affordable the housing market. An index of 100 means a family earning the state's median income has just enough buying power to qualify for a loan on the state's median-priced, single-family home. The county's score means a family earning the state's median annual income of $53,100 has more than double the buying power necessary for a median-priced, single-family home.

"You're still getting two houses for the price of one," said Everett King of ERA King Real Estate in Anniston. "We have a lot of room and a lot of time for people to get a good deal."

Alabama's average housing affordability index was 226.7 while the U.S. average was 180.3 in the second quarter of the year.

Despite the relative affordability, the rise home prices in the area has created an urgency in the market for people to buy homes, which is increasing demand and fueling further price increases, King said.

The statistics show the median sales price for a home in the area was $104,113 during the second quarter, a jump from the $101,983 median home price of the previous quarter.

"Demand is going up ... interest rates are going up ... that means the economy is improving," King said. "This is a good thing."

Keivan Deravi, an economist at Auburn University of Montgomery, said decreased housing affordability was a sign of economic improvement.

"Normally, that would not be a good thing," Deravi said of decreasing affordability. "But we're going from a very poor economic time to something just mediocre ... this is one of the few times that the index going down is a good thing."

Deravi added that rising values are good for homeowners and are creating an urgency in the market for people to buy homes before prices rise too high, further stimulating the housing industry.

Joey Crews of Keller Williams Realty in Anniston said that the local housing market was improving, but at the expense of affordability. Crews said he sold 34 percent more homes in the second quarter compared to the same quarter last year.

"Homes are selling more and values are going up, but because they are more valuable they are less affordable," Crews said.

Crews said the market for people buying their second and third homes is also improving, not just the first-time homebuyer's market - an even stronger sign of improvement in the area housing market in general. Homes in the second- and third-home market sell between $150,000 and $275,000, Crews said. First-time buyers spend around $100,000 on average, he said.

"That's the more lucrative market," Crews said of the second- and third-home market.

Larry Deason, president of Farmers and Merchants Bank in Anniston, said his and other banks are far more willing to offer mortgage loans now than during the height of the recession a few years ago. Still, many residents don’t qualify for loans and rising home prices are unlikely to help the situation, Deason said.

"A lot of people's credit scores have dropped due to the economy," Deason said. "And there are not a lot of young people with cash - they are having to rent now until they can save up enough to make a down payment."

Still, mortgage lending is far better now than it has been in recent years, Deason said.

"It's gotten a lot, lot better; it really has," he said.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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