Who Has the Least Affordable Mortgages in the US?

Housing prices are on the rise. In the first quarter of 2017, the total value of owner-occupied real estate in the US surpassed $23 billion, marking a full recovery from the crash of 2008-2009. However, this rapid growth of value owes less to new construction than it does to a spike in the price of existing homes. To find out what these trends mean for the affordability of a typical American home, we compared the monthly principal and interest payment on a mortgage against the typical median income of each county in the United States.

Where is it Least Affordable to Own a Home?

We compared the typical monthly cost of a mortgage to median incomes in each county.

We found that the least affordable counties were often seasonal destinations such as Nantucket and Jackson Hole, where extremely high property values far outstripped the ability of local households to afford home ownership. We also expected home affordability to suffer in densely populated areas like San Francisco and New York. While this was true, the data also shows that these major cities also have some of the highest median incomes, showing that the most expensive housing markets in the US are not only costly on an absolute scale —they are some of the least affordable even for high-earning locals.

Housing Values Are Passing Historical Highs

Real estate prices are the most obvious variable in the question of affordability. Although the total value of existing homes in the US is at an all-time high, the rate of new construction has been slow. This translates to higher prices on existing homes, as expanding demand collides with limited supply.

  • The highest home values were found in counties with major urban areas and seasonal destinations like Nantucket and Jackson Hole
  • Unaffordability in counties with the highest property values indicate that local residents earning median income may not be the primary consumers of local real estate
  • DC suburbs Arlington and Fairfax had high property values but higher affordability than other expensive areas

Expensive Markets Attract High Incomes—But Are They High Enough?

Home value and median income was highly correlated in our data set. However, affordability varied significantly among the handful of counties with incomes above $100,000. Suburban areas around San Francisco and Washington, DC actually rated as some of the most unaffordable despite the high median income of households residing there.

  • Out of the 18 counties in the US where median incomes exceed $100,000, the most affordable places included Los Alamos, NM and Delaware, OH
  • Property values among Bay Area counties such as San Mateo and Marin were several times higher than the most affordable areas, although incomes were similar

Counties With Median Incomes Under $40,000

The apparent relationship between high income and unaffordability led us to group the counties we examined by income levels and take a second look at the data from that angle. Areas in which households earned a median income under $40,000 proved to be more affordable than we expected, with only 10 individual counties where the front-end ratio surpassed the Federal Housing Administration's upper limit of 31%.

Least Affordable for Median Incomes < $40,000

CountyMedian Household IncomeMedian Home Value
Bronx, NY$34,959$381,919
Custer, CO$34,238$242,706
Taos, NM$36,573$240,532
Watauga, NC$38,855$245,007
Josephine, OR$39,928$247,879

Counties With Median Incomes $40,000 to $50,000

The North Coast of California featured prominently in this group, with Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties ranking as the three least affordable places for residents earning a median income between $40 - $50k. These counties tend to be more rural than the Bay Area to the south, but home values in this region were likely high due to its natural desirability. On the opposite end, we found less-populated counties in Texas and Kansas to be among the most affordable areas for home buying for these levels.

Least Affordable for Median Incomes $40,000 - $50,000

CountyMedian Household IncomeMedian Home Value
Mendocino, CA$45,296$353,565
Humboldt, CA$43,181$313,747
Trinity, CA$41,501$296,522
Williamsburg, VA$49,198$331,452
Ravalli, MT$40,473$262,137

Counties With Median Incomes $50,000 to $60,000

The median household income for the US as a whole was $57,462, making this income bracket particularly important to understanding the national picture of home affordability. Dense urban areas like Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Boston proved to be the least affordable places to own a home on this median income. Residents of sparsely populated counties in Texas, Nebraska and North Dakota saw median home values as low as $50,000, all while earning similar incomes as their counterparts in the big cities.

Least Affordable for Median Incomes $50,000 - $60,000

CountyMedian Household IncomeMedian Home Value
Kings, NY$50,530$617,155
Los Angeles, CA$59,839$528,571
Suffolk, MA$59,009$434,511
Yolo, CA$57,768$380,561
Essex, NJ$58,124$374,657

Counties With Median Incomes $60,000 to $70,000

Among counties at this median income level, the high demand for property in tourist destinations like Hawaii and ski towns in Colorado drove up the cost of a mortgage for local households. The most populous counties in this income range included San Diego County and Queens, New York. Interestingly, both these counties were rated as much less affordable than Tarrant County, which contains the city of Fort Worth, Texas. The estimated monthly payments in Tarrant were less than half that for either of the larger counties.

Least Affordable for Median Incomes $60,000 - $70,000

CountyMedian Household IncomeMedian Home Value
San Miguel, CO$64,017$571,484
Maui, HI$68,655$577,945
Kauai, HI$68,179$561,022
Santa Barbara, CA$65,880$531,601
San Juan, WA$61,228$491,753

Counties With Median Incomes $70,000 And Higher

Filtering for counties with household incomes of $70,000 and higher highlighted some of the most expensive and unaffordable metropolitan areas in the country, including New York and San Francisco. This group included many high-value real estate markets like Orange County, Seattle and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. While the ratio of unaffordable counties was no greater than in the lower income brackets, the highest front-end ratios tended towards more extreme values in this group.

Least Affordable for Median Incomes > $70,000

CountyMedian Household IncomeMedian Home Value
New York, NY$77,932$928,224
San Francisco, CA$88,829$936,053
Nantucket, MA$99,870$965,236
Dukes, MA$70,226$668,689
Santa Cruz, CA$72,450$684,279

Methodology

In order to determine the affordability of housing in each county, we used the median reported value of owner-occupied homes to determine the monthly mortgage payment for each area. We assumed a fixed 30-year interest rate of 4%, close to the current national average. With the monthly cost of interest and principal in hand, we calculated the approximate front-end ratio for a monthly mortgage payment relative to the median household income in every county.

These front-end ratios were compared against the 31% maximum established for FHA mortgages, which allow for much lower down payments. Conventional mortgages have stricter maximums on front-end ratios, generally no lower than 28%. Our projected monthly payments do not include the cost property taxes, which vary significantly by locality.

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