Monday, November 30, 2009

The Case for the $80,000 House

How much house can you get these days for $80,000?

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago, when Congress extended and expanded the refundable tax credit for homebuyers.

With the credit, buyers can get back 10% of the purchase cost on a home -- up to $6,500 for many who currently own a home, and $8,000 for qualifying first-time buyers. In the season of gift-giving, it's a wonderful present from taxpayers to home shoppers.

Do the math: The best return goes to the first-time buyer who spends 80 grand and gets 10% back. But if you spend, say, $300,000, you still only get the $8,000 – a measly 2%.

So what can you get for $80,000?

In the vast areas in the middle of the country, where space is not really a major constraint on housing, it can go a long way. Obvious point: Many of the cheapest places to buy are cheap for good reason. The neighborhoods may be depressed or worse. Good jobs—any job--may be hard to find.

The National Association of Realtors tags Saginaw, Mich., as the metropolitan statistical area with the cheapest real estate in the country. Median price of a single family home: $61,000. So in Saginaw the full $80,000 will take you upscale. Zillow features this three bedroom, two bath house (1,266 square feet) for $34,900.

At the other end of the range stands the San Francisco Bay Area, where median prices are more than half a million bucks. What does the $8,000 tax credit get you? "It doesn't do much for us here," admits James Caldwell, manager of Prudential California Realty on Union Street in San Francisco.

When I pressed him, Mr. Caldwell said you could get a one-bedroom condo in some cheap but OK areas just outside the city, like Pacifica, for maybe $200,000 or so. An $8,000 credit will at least cover 4% of the costs.

Over the bridge in Oakland you can get something even cheaper.

Real estate Web site Trulia illustrates the range of options in: Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Las Vegas, Oakland, Calif., Oklahoma City, Ok., and Tulsa, Ok. See the photos at left for some details.

One obvious standout: Las Vegas, essentially ground zero for the real estate collapse. For $80,000, notes Trulia, you can get a four bedroom, two and a half bathroom house with 1,600 square feet. It is, of course, pure coincidence that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev), who faces a tough re-election battle in the state next year, championed the extension of the tax credits.

The other big beneficiary of tax credit stimulus, of course, is over the border in Arizona, where home prices have taken a major haircut since the bubble popped.

Real estate Web site Zillow reports about 450 homes in Phoenix's Maricopa County, Ariz., for sale between $75,000 and $80,000. Spokeswoman Katie Curnutte says "three quarters have at least three bedrooms, and one quarter has at least four."

The comparable figure for Las Vegas was still impressive: 237 homes between $75,000 and $80,000.

But in San Bernardino, Calif., the figure was just 34 and in New York City you'd be laughed out of town.

Looking to make the most of your tax credit? Go west, young man.

Write to Brett Arends at

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