It’s no secret that young people are getting married and starting families later in life than their parents did. It is, however, a bit of a secret where they are choosing to settle down.
Big cities and their big employers have always attracted young workers, and that’s still true. But a combination of factors—sky-high home prices chief among them—have sent millennials across the country looking for alternatives. Unlikely places like Ohio and North Dakota have benefited.
The Millennial Effect on the Market
Older millennials (aged 25 to 34) make up 13.6% of the US population but 30% of the current population of existing-home buyers, according to Realtor.com. Where they move matters to the real estate market.
Ellie Mae, a mortgage data firm, has a Millennial Tracker that highlights which towns have high percentages of mortgages closed by millennials. That data, in turn, can help future homebuyers and real estate professionals alike identify new, accessible housing markets.
Top 11 Cities for Millennial Home Buyers
In six US cities, millennials actually make up more than half of home buyers. Some of these places are so small they aren’t even served by an interstate highway. Here are the top 11 cities that millennials are moving to, according to Ellie Mae.
- Athens, Ohio: 59%
A little more than an hour away from Columbus, Athens is home to Ohio University—which helps explain why it’s among the most millennial-dense counties in the state.
- Aberdeen, South Dakota: 56%
Aberdeen is a three-hour drive away from the nearest large cities: Sioux Falls to the south and Fargo to the north. Aberdeen is home to Northern State University, and Ag Processing just opened a new soybean plant there.
- Williston, North Dakota: 55%
Williston’s population grew from 12,000 in 2007 to over 30,000 today, but unemployment there is well below the national average, and the household median income is more than $83,000. North Dakota boom towns are threatened by stubbornly low oil prices, however, which reduces demand for shale oil.
- Lima, Ohio: 55%
Lima hosts both the University of Northwest Ohio and an Ohio State University branch. The town brags that it’s a good place for large commercial development (it attracted 10 such projects in 2015), ranking sixth among small metropolitan areas, according to Site Selection magazine.
- Dickinson, North Dakota: 54%
Dickinson was actually the poster child for North Dakota’s oil boom and bust. As one example of the area’s frenetic rise, Dunn County, just north of Dickinson, saw its road construction budget jump from $1.5 million to $25 million in three years. Single family housing construction permits jumped 330% in one year.
- Odessa, Texas: 51%
Odessa, Texas, is also an oil town, located in the oil-rich West Texas Permian Basin. The oil bust hurt Odessa, too: it lost 12,200 jobs or about 15% of its employment when oil prices fell. More recently, though, the run-up in prices added 53,000 jobs and the economy is in recovery.
- Quincy, Illinois: 49%
Located directly across the Mississippi River from Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri, Quincy has thrived thanks to smart planning dating back to the 1980s, when the city built a successful industrial park to attract employers. With its low unemployment and high graduation rates, Quincy made the Forbes list of top 15 small places to raise a family in 2010.
- El Paso, Texas: 49%
El Paso’s economy is boosted by a heavy presence of federal government employees. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the US Customs and Border Protection all have operations there, and Fort Bliss is nearby.
- Oshkosh-Neenah, Wisconsin: 49%
Many Americans know this town, about an hour from Green Bay, as the home of OshKosh B’gosh. Military contracts also fuel the local economy. Oshkosh Defense, formerly Oshkosh Truck, builds specialty heavy rigs for government agencies, especially the military. The firm recently won a $6.7 billion contract to build a new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle for the US Army. Oshkosh is also home to the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, the third largest university in the state, with 14,000 students.
- Pottsville, Pennsylvania: 48%
An hour outside Harrisburg, Pottsville is home to Yuengling, now the largest locally owned brewery in America. Like many rural Pennsylvania towns, Pottsville is struggling and slowly losing population—it’s down from almost 17,000 in 1990 to just under 14,000 now, but with young buyers taking up residence here, that could change in the near future.
- Owensboro, Kentucky: 48%
Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, Owensboro doesn’t have an interstate highway, but it is within a few hours’ drive of Louisville, Nashville, and St. Louis. The town counts US Bank among its largest employers—the firm’s national mortgaging service center is located there. A downtown makeover has also made this river city a nice place to live and work.
Why Millennials Are Moving
Understanding where millennials are buying homes is important both to the housing industry and to young people looking for alternatives to oppressive monthly mortgage payments.
“As millennials continue to enter the housing market, we are seeing great activity in the middle of the US, where inventory is generally more affordable than on the coasts,” says Joe Tyrrell, executive vice president of corporate strategy for Ellie Mae.
Tyrrell offered the example of top city for millennial homebuyers—Athens, Ohio. The the average home loan in Athens was nearly one-third the average home loan in Boston, Massachusetts.
Using the traditional 30%-of-income affordability standard, about one-third of households have unaffordable mortgage payments, according to a recent report from Harvard University. What’s more, the number of severely cost-burdened homeowners—those who spend 50% or more of their income on their mortgage—has skyrocketed from 1.1 million in 2001 to 7.6 million in 2015.
Numbers like that have young people considering homes in smaller places.
In Athens, Ohio, the average listed home price is $189,000, far less than the national median listing price of $259,000, according to Zillow.com. But home price isn’t the only factor. The ability to save up for a down payment matters, too.
“The main thing that jumps out to me is that those are all relatively affordable cities. Lower rents allow millennials to save for a down payment,” says Andrew Woo of ApartmentList.com. Indeed, according to Zillow, one-bedroom apartments in Athens cost $750 a month. “Generally, pricey urban areas such as San Francisco and New York have a large share of renters, as homeownership is out of reach for most, and many millennials plan to settle down and purchase a home in a different metro,” notes Woo.
Other Millennial Moving Lists
The Ellie Mae list reveals only cities where a high percentage of millennials are buyers—not necessarily places that are popular with younger adults. More mundane explanations, like demographics, play a role in statistics like this, too. The younger a population, the higher the percentage of millennial buyers.
There are plenty of other “where are millennials moving” lists. Different methodologies reach different results, but the overall narrative is the same.
The Urban Land Institute, calculating relative growth of the millennial population, said earlier this year that Virginia Beach, Richmond, and Pittsburgh were among the hottest destinations for millennials. That list tells a similar story, however. Of traditional large coastal cities, only Boston cracked the top 10.
SmartAsset.com made its own list, too. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco don’t crack the top 25. Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Cary, North Carolina, on the other hand, made the top 10.
ATTOM Data Solutions, using a different set of criteria, shared another list of places popular with young home buyers—cities where the highest percentage of FHA loans (and their low down payments) have closed. It’s also full of smaller towns in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania.
“Millennials are a massive generation, the largest now in fact, and they certainly don’t act in a monolithic manner,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president of ATTOM. “So when we see increases in home sales to millennials in places like Lima, Ohio, or Pottsville, Pennsylvania, what it doesn’t necessarily mean is that there is a broad migration of millennials to small towns. But what it does mean is that there are millennials who are willing to move to small towns, likely because they are finding jobs there and they are finding a much more affordable cost of living, particularly when it comes to housing.”
NOTE: This story ran based on data through August. Because this end of the housing market is volatile, the “top 10” list can change frequently. Here’s what it looked like after September’s data (the most recent available on Nov. 9, 2017).