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real estate
Homes still too high for 'average' family

One of the worst things about the overall real estate market today is that there doesn't seem to be any silver lining behind that big black cloud.

Normally, you'd think dramatically falling prices would make homeownership a reality for more moderate-income families.

But even with homes more affordable, the median price is still out of reach for a median-income family in many markets, according to "Paycheck to Paycheck: Wages and the Cost of Housing in America," a study by the Center for Housing Policy, or CHP, in Washington, D.C.

Comparing housing costs in more than 200 metropolitan areas with the wages earned by workers in 60 occupations, the study found that homeownership is unaffordable for all of the five-fastest growing occupations -- registered nurses, retail salespeople, customer service representatives, food preparation workers and office clerks. Even registered nurses, who typically have high salaries, were unable to purchase a median-priced home in 108 of the markets.

“Affordability may finally be moving in the right direction but still has a long way to go.”

"Even with the housing downturn, the drop in prices still just isn't enough for many workers in traditional backbone occupations to afford houses," says Rebecca Cohen, a CHP research associate.

In many parts of the country, the housing increases have outpaced wage growth for almost a decade. Census data released in 2006 revealed that between 2000 and 2005, the burden of housing costs grew sharply.

The Housing Affordability Index measures the cost of housing against median family income. The National Association of Realtors, or NAR, which calculates the index, considers that the typical family makes enough money to buy the typical used home, as long as the family can make a 20-percent down payment. In the year 2000, the NAR pegged the index at 129.2, which means the typical family had 129 percent of the income necessary to pay for the typical used house. That figure dropped to 104.9 in June 2007, even though the 2000 median family income of $50,732 rose to $59,157 during the same period. That's because the median price of a home in 2000 was $139,000, but by June 2007 prices peaked at a whopping $229,200. In those seven years, the median price of homes had risen 64.8 percent, while median incomes had only risen 16.6 percent.

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NAR estimates in January 2008 indicate affordability may finally be moving in the right direction, but it still has a long way to go.

Cohen says there have also been other consequences of the overinflation of housing. As the cost of purchasing a home went up, more families moved into rentals, which also put pressure on that market and drove up rents. When that happens, many local economies have trouble filling lower to mid-range jobs. The study also found that retail salespeople and food preparation workers couldn't afford the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in any of the 210 markets studied.

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