Monday, October 15, 2012

It's Cheaper to Buy Than to Rent In Chattanooga

A cute brick house at a price first time buyers can afford,
listed by Randy Durham Realty
Chattanooga's downtown areas have slowly been in a process of reclamation since the 1990s. Restaurants, hotels, and attractions have come in. Nightlife has returned. Downtown housing has boomed. Yet affordable rental housing is at an all time low. The demographic of young professionals, students, and middle class downtown workers whose budget for housing falls in the middle between those in Section 8 housing and those who can afford rents over $1,000 a month has almost nowhere to go. It's a problem that developers and the city are almost completely ignoring. Controversy surrounding a potential Publix on the North Shore is focused mainly on Publix's refusal to modify the design of the store from a suburban one to a more urban, pedestrian friendly model. There was outcry on social media when a developer planning an affordable apartment complex aimed at students and young professionals changed to plans for a more affluent demographic because of the incoming Publix.

"It's not like they are building a Neiman Marcus," wrote one frustrated young professional. 

A local barista fumed, "Since when is Publix posh? And who finds it desirable to live next to a chain grocery store? That sounds incredibly annoying and if anything should LOWER the rent. Part of the appeal in living in North Chatt is that I DON'T have to live near chain malls and shit."

An established software developer for TVA wrote, "I'd move downtown in a heartbeat, if I could afford it. Prices on those condos haven't budged, and those townhouses on Cherry go for just shy of a million bucks. Do any jobs in Chattanooga pay that sort of money?"

These frustrations are indicative of the plight of those who want to be involved in the growth of downtown and the city's many amenities, but feel shut out and ignored by both developers and the local government. It's simply a tough time to be a renter. The housing market's crash has made renting more popular than ever. The condo boom that started in Chattanooga just before the crash was still targeted at well-to-do renters on the crest of a new trend, before downtown living went from a boutique lark to the urban planning philosophy nationwide for the foreseeable future. The two combined leave more renters than ever with different standards than renters of decades past and too few units that meet renters needs. As the software developer above pointed out, despite the demand for affordable housing and the outcry against this one developer upping the rent at his proposed complex, "many of the expensive downtown condos sit empty, 3+ years after they first opened."

As funny as it might seem, buying a house is cheaper in Chattanooga right now than renting for those squeezed in this middle income bracket. After closing, mortgages freuquently clock in lower than most rents, even with utilities factored in. Many neighborhoods near downtown or close to the highway and major shopping districts offer small houses perfect for young singles or just-married couples at affordable prices. Highland Park, Glenwood, Hill City, Orchard Knob, Brainerd, Redbank, and St. Elmo are all places young professionals are increasingly turning to to balance their desire for the urban lifestyle with the realities of their budget in a city that ignore its middle income renters. Not only are these neighborhoods close to all the things people like to do downtown and out and about, they offer perks that renting doesn't, like fewer neighbors and control over your paint colors.
Would you rather pay $675 a month for this studio apartment,
or $500 a month on a mortgage for a two bedroom house?

FHA loans, once responsible in part for the emptying of downtowns and white flight thanks to how affordable they made mortgages for first-time buyers, are now a boon for young professionals who can't afford Chattanooga's high rates. FHA is a great government program that encourages home ownership by requiring a smaller downpayment than traditional mortgage loans. Another great resource for homebuyers is CNE (Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise) which offers counseling, education, and loans that can be enormously helpful to plugging in first-time buyers with the information and funding they need. 

Rather than getting stuck paying big city prices for small town apartments, pay small town prices for grand bungalows, craftsman houses, and post-war brick charmers. Prices for homes are recovering, but they haven't bounced back yet. There are still many foreclosed properties and short sales that put buyers at an advantage. Chattanooga has always enjoyed the low cost of living associated with the South, and an upside to the bad economy is that its more affordable than ever to buy in at Chattanooga's current low real estate prices. Not only do you beat high rents now, but you will have invested in property in an up and coming city that could be rented later or solder at a higher price when the market returns to full strength.

Buying a house seems, especially to young professionals starting out, like a daunting and expensive prospect that should wait until they are married or starting a family. It seems like an anchor tying them to a town they may not always live in should they get a promotion or job offer in another city. While these are factors to consider, they are less prohibitive than one might think. Buying a house is, for now, actually one of the best things that young professions and middle income families can consider.

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