In the fourth quarter of 2011, 75.9 percent of homes sold were affordable to families who earn the national median income of $64,200; that's according to the Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index. But even as consumers would seem to be poised to cash in on a market brimming with deals, rigid lending requirements continue to prevent many borrowers from capitalizing on the opportune conditions, the association says.
"While today's report indicates that homeownership is within reach of more households than it has been for more than two decades, overly restrictive lending conditions ... remain significant obstacles," Barry Rutenberg, who is chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, said in a statement.
The Youngstown-Warren-Boardman area of Ohio and Pennsylvania led all other regions under the terms of affordability that were measured by the index, with 95.1 percent of homes sold considered affordable by the association. Other top-ranking areas include Lakeland-Wintehaven, Fla., Modesto, Calif., Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa. and Toledo, Ohio.
Best Places To Buy An Affordable Home
Home Affordability at Record High, Builders' Report Says
Median home price: $80,000
Median family income: $87,801
What was once just a swamp in central Florida has turned into a thriving community of 12,000 residents.
While Hunter's Creek isn't incorporated -- the county runs the schools and police and fire services -- John Rasnic, the head of the Community Association, said "we think of ourselves as a town."
Anchored by the Hunter's Creek Golf Club, the community's attraction to the sport is clear, but draws also include access to Orlando's theme parks and the Atlantic Ocean beaches -- both of which are just a short drive away.
While many of the homes lining the fairways cost $300,000-plus, there are plenty of affordable alternatives. Condos are particularly good deals lately, and many were converted from rentals during the housing bubble. Now, banks are selling them at "fire-sale prices," said Rasnic.
If you can forgive the hokey street signs scattered throughout town (the main intersection is where This Way and That Way Streets meet), Jackson has plenty to offer -- including a great school system and a serene, family-friendly atmosphere.
Dubbed the "City of Enchantment," Lake Jackson was originally planned in the 1940s to house employees of the Dow Chemical company. Alden Dow, who designed the town, apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright and his early buildings were influenced by the famed architect's aesthetic, said city manager Bill Yenny.
The landmarked Lake Theater, built in 1945, is a survivor of those early years. Visitors will also find windy roads that take them through hardwood forests and past well-kept houses that are valued at a wide range of price points.
Wesley Chapel has gotten creative during tough economic times in the past. In the pre-World War II years, residents relied on turpentine stills, lumber mills, cattle ranches, citrus groves -- and the occasional moonshine operation -- to help pay the bills.
These days, they're defying the economic slump using more conventional means. The town is now attracting high-paying financial services firms -- and the jobs that come with them.
Raymond James is the latest group to announce a new office here. This rich new blood has kept the local economy humming, said real estate agent Jeff Miller.
Add into the mix good schools, low taxes, affordable housing and a location just 25 miles north of Tampa and Wesley Chapel has stayed in high demand. The population has grown nearly 700% since the 2000 Census count.
Local crime news for Johnston is telling: A recent headline proclaimed that a driver for a trash collection company spilled garbage on the highway and was issued a citation.
While many of the law-abiding locals work in nearby Des Moines, Johnston boasts plenty of its own big employers, including Pioneer Hi-Bred, Iowa Public Television and John Deere Financial.
That's helped the area's economy to keep running on all cylinders, with unemployment in the metro area under 6 percent -- more than three points better than the national rate.
And, while Johnston's population has quadrupled over the past 20 years, it's still a place where, "neighbors know and care about the children and families next door," said Mayor Paula Dierenfeld. Other bonuses: "Quality neighborhoods and an excellent school system."
According to local lore, early fur traders stumbled across flocks of monarch butterflies and dubbed this area "Papillion" (the French word for butterfly) -- and the name stuck.
A perennial contender for Money's list, this suburb of Omaha offers a stable economy, first-class schools and many large parks with plenty of family-friendly events.
In late August, for example, residents participate in the annual Midlands Pirate Festival. Even though these residents live hundreds of miles from the closest ocean and many of them rely heavily on farming, these folks prove they are no landlubbers.
Economically, the area is a small dynamo. Darren Carlson, the city's community relations director, said local agri-business is booming and so is military contracting, thanks to a major nearby facility, Offutt Air Force Base.
This Chicago suburb is the last stop for those who want a small town atmosphere with a convenient commute into the city. "After Crete, it's all farmland," said Mayor Michael Einhorn.
Crete boasts good schools, low crime and an almost bucolic landscape. There are acres upon acres of forest preserve, plenty of hiking and horseback riding trails and an ice-skating park.
Even though many residents earn big-city wages in Chicago, the cost of living is low and homes are particularly affordable, said Einhorn. That has attracted rapid growth over the past decade, during which Crete's population has grown by nearly 25 percent.
And if the mayor has his way, the expansion will continue. He's pushing to extend a commuter train that will connect Crete with the high-paying financial services district in downtown Chicago.
This small city has reversed the usual order of suburban development. Instead of businesses moving in after the population of commuters reaches a critical mass, the companies actually came first.
Some of the best-known employers here include Cisco, IBM and Lenovo. Not surprisingly, more than a quarter of all residents are scientists, engineers or computer technicians either in town or in the nearby Research Triangle.
The jobs here have attracted an influx of international tech talent, including many from South Asia. In fact, Asians now make up more than 27 percent of the population.
The town celebrates its cultural diversity with the "Taste of Morrisville" festival, which highlights different ethnic restaurants in town, including Japanese, African and Indian eateries.
Each summer, the Sweet Corn Festival celebrates the lifeblood of this city. Home to several corn processing facilities, Cedar Rapids' economy is thriving thanks to high demand for ethanol and other corn-based products.
Nothing goes better with an ear of sweet corn than a cold beer. And since many of the residents here are of German descent, there are plenty of opportunities to down a cold one. In the fall, the town celebrates its German roots during Oktoberfest, when some of the locals break out the lederhosen and tap the kegs.
Residents don't have to wait for annual festivals to come around for entertainment, Cedar Rapids is the leading arts center in Eastern Iowa with the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, the National Czech & Slovak Museum, several theater groups and the Cedar Rapids Symphony, which holds about 120 performances a year.
Franklin produces auto parts, packaging and great basketball players -- like former Indiana University sharpshooter Steve Alford.
The town's early claim to fame came nearly 70 years ago when a Life magazine crew came to shoot a photo essay, which portrayed Saturday night in an ideal American small town.
Since then, the city's population has almost quadrupled and many big companies -- Toyota and Mitsubishi among them -- have opened up shop, employing a fair percentage of locals. Other residents commute to Indianapolis, just 25 miles away.
Since the Life story, "we've become more of a suburb," said Mayor Fred Paris, "but one thing that hasn't changed much is the people. There's a strong strain of volunteerism here."
It's just 20 miles outside of Houston, but Deer Park is no commuter kingdom: Many residents work right in town at Shell's refinery and petrochemical plant. The 1,500-acre Shell complex is the nation's sixth largest refinery, employing 1,700 workers.
The plant jobs pay well and the cost of living is low here, according to Debbie Westbeld, the city's Economic Development Administrator. "There's lots of disposable income," she said. "Everybody has a boat or a four-wheeler."
The town is also attractive for its extremely low crime rate, well-funded schools and slow pace. "It's Mayberry R.F.D," said Westbeld.
Today's buyer's market probably won't fade anytime soon. With an investigation into illegal foreclosures recently settled between state attorneys general and the nations' five biggest servicers, foreclosures are likely to swell, experts say. And the rising tide of anticipated repossessions is likely to push down prices further, many experts say.
What's more, the Federal Reserve has said that it intends on keeping interest rates low for at least the next two years. Since mortgage rates ride on the agency's rates, they too are expected to continue to hover close to record lows.