The Restless Project

Why the toxic combination of economic unease and always-on technology is driving Americans crazy.

Click to learn about The Restless Project

We need drugs to sleep at night.  Nearly half of us don’t have enough in a bank account to cover next month’s expenses, let alone any real head start towards retirement. We buy homes with mortgage payments our parents couldn’t fathom, or we make student loan payments almost that large. We are digitally tethered to work by gadgets that constantly let us down with bad directions or dead batteries. We almost never take vacations, but when we do, we read email every day anyway. We chug Starbucks and Red Bull to try to keep up, but we feel like we are letting everyone down all the time anyway.

America, land of the Restless.

 

But why?

I have a simple question I ask when I try persuade people that there’s something very wrong with the way we live in America today.

“Can you think of any friends with children who are secure they will be able to pay for their kids’ college?”

There’s always an uncomfortable chuckle, as if I’d just asked if they knew someone who could weave straw into gold. Then there’s usually a discussion about how everyone feels like they are working harder, and perhaps even making more money than they’d ever dreamed, but yet falling behind anyway. So they run on the rat-wheel faster and faster.

Restless.

Today I am announcing a new long-term effort, an on-going series, called The Restless Project.  I plan to unpack the root causes of this Restlessness. I believe they are paradoxically both more subtle and more obvious that most busy people realize. And I think it’s such an important discussion — I think it is the story of our time — that I am interrupting my career to shine a spotlight on it.  Along the way, together, I hope we can explore ways to jump off the Crazy Train.

Trina Foster-Draper. No one should have to undertake a Fourth Act.

Trina Foster-Draper. No one should have to undertake a Fourth Act.

I will talk about humble Americans like Trina Foster-Draper, a 56-year-old single mom of four who will be proudly writing her last check for her kids’ college this year.  She was recently laid off by CenturyLink in Logan, Utah, where she’d worked in customer service for nearly six years.  What will she do now? Go back to school for information technology and begin her fourth career transition.

“Everybody has to keep changing, keep reinventing themselves now,” she said to me, sitting in her apartment she shares with her father – a brand new building adjacent to a massive Walmart. “There’s no choice.”

Despite the occasional catcalls from folks who casually argue that today’s adults are just lazy and selfish, for the most part, there’s general agreement on the problem — the creeping sense that life is somehow spinning out of control.  It is.  Today, we all live under pressure from a diabolical combination of economic dis-ease and technology disruption that keep all of us, not just on our toes, but on the edge of a cliff.  Second Acts are fine, even romantic. Fourth Acts? That’s insanity.

The reasons for Restlessness that I will explore in this series are myriad:

1) It’s an economics story. Just 50 years ago, an American household with one decent job could afford a decent home.  That math is now horribly broken. Today, it takes two incomes, and even at that, a much higher percentage of household income to buy a home. That’s why you never feel like you have enough money.

2) It’s a work-life balance story.  Since you are insecure about having enough (what if one spouse loses a job?) you work too hard. Fear is an excellent, horrible motivator. People don’t take proper nights and weekends any longer, instead putting in hours over remote corporate networks, in large part because they feel like they have to. Forty hour work weeks took hundreds of years to evolve, which is an interesting history I will share soon. Smartphones took them away in five years.

3) It’s a technology story. Smartphones haven’t just wrecked our ability to disconnect from the office.  Pick your favorite restaurant: How many people are staring at phones while half-talking to each other?  Step back from the scene for a moment. We all look like rude idiots doing that, always more interested in people somewhere else than the ones we are with.  Sure, you could be better about phone etiquette. But billions of dollars have been spent figuring out how to make you addicted to these things. You didn’t stand much of a chance.

4) It’s a broken social contract story.  America’s social contract, always part-myth and part reality, has broken down entirely, in a way that doesn’t make sense. Today, people with regular jobs in regular cities can’t afford regular homes there.  That should be impossible. After all, the price of most homes should settle roughly into what most people can pay for them.  But not when the value of those homes is propped up impossibly by a credit system built like a pyramid scheme.  The math, you see, is against you.

5) It’s a disappearing middle class story. A quick thought experiment: What is a solid middle class job that would let someone comfortably own a modest home? Teacher? Cab driver? Bike mechanic?  Today, workers are driven towards high-income, lottery ticket-like professions such as information technology. Of course, a decent home in an IT-friendly neighborhood near Silicon Valley costs $1.2 million. Better work hard and get that big bonus. Meanwhile, not everyone can write computer code or be a physical therapist. What are the rest of American workers supposed to do?  This isn’t a minimum wage story. This is an average wage story.  By every measure, the economic “recovery” after the Great Recession has done nearly nothing to help the middle class. Sure, unemployment is shrinking, but that’s a misleading stat. Here’s the truth: Low-wage jobs represent nearly half of all jobs created as part of the recovery.

6) It’s a marketing story. What do you do when you feel scared of the future?  Well, you drink Red Bull, for one, so you can work all night and impress the boss. And maybe work yourself to death. Or maybe you pay $250 for a new pair of shoes, just so you can put aside for a moment those hopeless feelings that you’ll never, ever, pay off that student loan. Or maybe you’ll hand over your finances to that lovely man in the white shirt who tells you he can help you pay for your kids’ college, even though all he’ll do is suck out a percentage of your money in fees every year. But he does make you feel better.  The cycle of Fear and Consumption, as we all learned in the movie Bowling for Columbine, is powerful.

7) It’s a where-to-live story.  NYC dwellers have always been restless, always with one eye looking out for an emerging neighborhood where it might be possible to afford a dreamy 3-bedroom apartment in relative safety.  All of America lives like this now.  As I travel the country, everyone with a second or third kid on the way is trying to make impossible math work – where are the wages higher and the housing costs lower? North Dakota? North Carolina? Florida’s west coast? Oregon? So-called “second tier” cities are gaining steam and migrants as the recession’s recovery drags on, but these moves bring on other problems – like proximity to meth houses.

8) It’s a hacker story. Sure, computer criminals who might empty your bank account in ways that you didn’t even know possible is enough to keep you up at night. But that’s barely the beginning of the story.  Behaviorists have hacked you and now desperately try to deliver just the right ad at just the right moment so you can’t resist buying your product.  Huge firms with names you’ve never heard of collect data on you by the hard-drive-full – Axciom admits having 3,000 data points on nearly every American.  Heck, folks are hacking your genetic code.  What are your right to all this incredibly important, personal information? Basically, you have none.

We’re restless, and I want to explain why.  I’m certainly not alone.  Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter, recently explored the complex life of American woman in her excellent book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. You’ll recognize some of the concepts about the relationships between two income homes and housing costs from Elizabeth Warren’s classic, The Two-Income Trap.

Since I’ve spent 20 years writing about ripoffs and the dark side technology, I think I have a unique perspective on the problem of restlessness. For the past year, since I left my job at NBC, I’ve been chipping away at stories in this area. Here’s a few examples:

 

I plan on covering the hell out of this topic.  (There’s already 27 stories in my special “Restless Project” section, which you can find here.) And don’t worry, I promise to write about hopeful trends, too, such as the explosive growth in yoga, or the technology tools that really do make our lives easier, or what folks in other countries do to stay sane in our digital world, or the members of the “Resistance” who are fighting for worker rights or simply promising to turn off the cell phones for the weekend. I hope you’ll follow along, you’ll criticize me, and you’ll make suggestions to help bring this story the attention it needs. The best way to make sure you don’t miss a post is to sign up for my email newsletter by clicking over to this form, or just fill out the box on the upper-right hand corner of this page.

The journey is personal. As I look around at my own career, I see the insanity of journalists trying to do an honest job and raise families in world where everyone is judged – not just by Neilson ratings – but by Facebook likes and ReTweets.  That’s a popularity contest which no one can win.  And I see my friends, who are increasingly incapable of having fun without having their faces in a phone or a video game, and I fear the lonely future that seems stretched out before me. I love a good chat.  I hope you will, too.

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Photo caption: Tiffany Doyle, left, with sister Brittany Meda at her wedding. (Rennard Photography)

Tiffany Doyle, left, with sister Brittany Meda at her wedding. (Rennard Photography)

Call them the invisible victims of the housing collapse: The millions of homeowners who’ve spent nearly a decade dutifully making mortgage payments on homes worth less than the balance of their loans. Known as “being under water,” many in this crowd were never in danger of losing their home. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t suffer.

Tiffany Doyle, 44, was one of them. She bought her two-bedroom townhouse outside Seattle for a very reasonable $289,000, well within her means. But her timing was terrible. She pulled the trigger in 2007; very near the market’s peak. When the recession hit, her townhouse’s value plunged all the way to an estimated $220,000.

You might think as long as Doyle could keep making payments on the mortgage everything would be fine. Wrong. After the bubble burst, her company was acquired by a New York-based firm. To get ahead — or at least to feel secure in her position — she’d have to relocate to New York. But that wasn’t possible.

“I could not even consider moving,” Doyle said. If she did, she would have lost much of her life savings paying off the balance of her loan after her townhouse sold. Meanwhile, she also knew declining the move might put her future prospects with the firm at risk. “I remember feeling trapped. I thought I was making a move towards a better financial stability and then the market dropped out from under me.”

Doyle’s story was repeated across the country during the depths of the recession — it’s the kind of thing I am chronicling in The Restless Project. Homeowners who are under water often can’t sell their homes, meaning they can’t move for job opportunities — or at least they end up long-distance renting or living as split families. They also can’t obtain home equity loans or refinance, since their homes have no equity, but relief may finally have arrived.

Real estate data firm RealtyTrac says the number of “seriously” under water homes fell dramatically in 2015 as housing prices around the country continue to recover from their 2008-2009 lows. At the end of 2015, there were 6.4 million U.S. homes at least 25% under water. That’s roughly 11.5% of all homeowners with a mortgage. While that sounds like a lot,  it’s down from 7.1 million at the end of 2014 — 12.7% of all homeowners with a mortgage — and down from 18.8% at the end of 2013.

Doyle fits this profile neatly. Her townhouse is now worth an estimated $267,000 — still well below what she paid, but since she’s made several years of payments, she’s reasonably close to break-even. In other words, her mortgage is no longer a financial anchor around her neck.

“It was only a few months ago when I saw the value of my house start going up, and I did immediately feel more free and a huge sense of relief,” she said.

Even in the hardest-hit areas, relief is coming, though more slowly. In Florida, for example, 19.8% of mortgage holders are still seriously under water, but that’s compared to 24.7% last year. In Arizona, the number fell from 16.1% in 2014 to 14.3% in 2015. In Georgia, it fell from 19.2% to 14.1%, according to RealtyTrac.

But of course, there are still millions of homeowners struggling with the same situation Doyle recently escaped. For them, relief might still be many years away.

“Over the past three-and-a-half years, the number of seriously underwater properties has been cut in half, but we continue to deal with a long tail of seriously underwater properties, and it will likely be another five years at least before most of those remaining underwater properties move into positive equity territory,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.

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Stu Stull

Stu Stull

When you think Ohio, you probably think Cleveland, and you might think Cincinnati. Almost certainly, you don’t think Columbus, but here’s a secret: Ohio’s capital city is larger than its more famous neighbors to the north and south. In fact, it’s the largest U.S. city to make Credit.com’s top 10 most affordable cities list. By some measures, it’s larger than Denver, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. And yet, it doesn’t feel crowded, said native Stu Stull.

“Best thing about Columbus is the ease of getting around and not having to waste time waiting for everything like Chicago, Washington, LA and other cities,” said Stull, 58. “There are no hour-and-a-half waits for dinner, no looking for 10 to 15 minutes for a parking space or waiting in traffic for way too long.” Except for college football Saturdays, of course.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

Stull was born and raised in the central Ohio city. He left briefly for Texas, but returned years ago and never looked back. A city employee, his mortgage on a small 3-bedroom house with a garden and screened-in patio eats up only 20% of his income.

“I can get downtown in half an hour and I am 10-plus miles away. Pro football, basketball, and baseball are within a two- or three-hour drive,” he said. The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets are right in town. “Concerts, like the Rolling Stones last year, and other entertainment comes here often.”

The Columbus economy weathered the recession better than many Midwest towns, thanks to its status as home of The Ohio State University and state government. But Columbus has a thriving private sector, too. Plenty of financial firms are located there — inexpensive housing helps keep labor costs down — like JPMorgan Chase, PNC Financial and Nationwide Mutual Insurance. It’s also a haven for fashion, and home to firms that operate Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, and other well-known brands.

The Columbus economy was recently projected to possibly overtake Cleveland by 2018, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Stull, who is a graphic designer and a part-time musician, said Columbus is still a place with a strong middle class.

“My experience when traveling to other cities is that life is easier here,” he said. “Most people are not living like a Kardashian no matter where they are.”

Columbus also has both old-world charm and hip hangouts. The historic district, German Village, makes drivers slow down with cobblestone streets. They should slow down anyway to see the gingerbread-like homes built by German immigrants who settled the area. The neighborhood is also home to one of America’s best independent book stores, Book Loft. Meanwhile, the Short North, near the city center, is a busy strip full of high-end restaurants and local pubs; it has the feel of an outdoor festival during every football weekend.

Columbus has its critics, of course. The winters are gray, and some residents lament that it’s a bit boring compared to coastal cities like New York. But with a median home sales price of around $117,000, perhaps there’s enough money left over for frequent trips to the Big Apple.

Stull might be a bit biased, but he said the music scene is surprisingly robust.

“It is a place without the extremes of other places,” Stull says. “To quote native James Thurber, ‘Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen, and in which almost everything has.’”

Life in Columbus, Ohio, by the Numbers

  • Affordable Cities Ranking: 9th
  • Housing Poor Residents: 30.4%
  • Median Home Sales Price: $117,475
  • Median Household Income: $46,481

The cheapest cities in America, based on percent of residents who are housing poor.

 

 

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Click on these links to see their stories: Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, Buffalo and Raleigh

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The average income of first-time buyers is rising fast, leaving many would-be buyers behind

The average income of first-time buyers is rising fast, leaving many would-be buyers behind

Is buying a first home becoming more a privilege than an American birthright? That’s the provocative question posed recently by Issi Romem, chief economist of BuildZoom.com. And he answers it, cautiously, with data suggesting it’s true.

Romem’s most concerning assertion: Young buyers have nearly 10% higher incomes than they did less than a decade ago. The average household income for first-time buyers — as opposed to homebuyers who are trading up — is nearly $85,000, up from about $78,000 from 2004-2007. First-time homebuyers now come from higher up the income distribution than they used to, clocking in near the 60th percentile.

(I’ve talked about this problem in several ways; the “Requiem for the starter home” story I wrote last year got the most attention.)

“The ability to transition into homeownership is gradually becoming the privilege of a narrower group of first-time buyers that is more financially select,” Romem says.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

That leads to a second problem, one that impacts the entire economy: First-time homebuyers are conspicuously absent from home buying at the moment, which is stifling the economic recovery. In 2005, the U.S. hit an all-time high of 3.2 million first-time homebuyers, Romem says, but they buy fewer than 2 million homes annually today. That accounts for fewer than half of the nearly 4.65 million homes sold in the U.S. in 2015, according to figures from the National Association of Realtors.

First-time buyers are critical for the economy because their purchases set in motion sales for others who are trading up – usually, families looking to expand need to sell their “starter” homes first.

“A shortage of first-time buyers will cause the equivalent of famine in the housing market: a slowdown in home sales and presumably also in prices,” Romem wrote in a recent post titled “The Rising Income of First-Time Home Buyers.

Nationally, sales to first-time homebuyers are 16.5% below the historical norm, Romem says, but in some parts of the country, the dropoff is even more dramatic. In the West region, sales fall below the norm by 23.9%; in the South, by 22.6%. That compares with the Northeast, where sales to first-time buyers actually exceeded the historical norm by 3.6%.

There are two ways to look at the news. Tougher lending standards, such as larger down paymentrequirements, clearly have something to do with a dropoff in young buyers. That might help prevent a repeat of the housing bubble and collapse, said Logan Mohtashami, senior loan manager at AMC Lending Group.

“To be able to buy a home now more than ever…means you’re doing well in this economy. This cycle of homebuyers is the best I have ever seen in my 20 years,” Mohtashami said. Exotic interest-only or low-down-payment loans helped some buyers get into their first homes a decade ago, and that didn’t work out well for many of them. “I always wondered how much of the previous data was jaded because a lot of first-time homebuyers bought homes without the right income needed.”

On the other hand, the housing market is being buoyed by all-cash buyers – some investors, some foreign buyers – while young adults are renting in an expensive rental market or being forced to live with parents into their 30s. Ramem worries about the social issues that might create.

“The notion that homeownership is slipping out of reach for a growing share of the population is an uncomfortable one, especially if the trend continues,” he said. “Do we really want homeownership to become a privilege rather than a choice?”

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Click on the links below to see their stories

Click on these links to see their stories: Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, Buffalo and Raleigh

Where should I live? Where should I raise a family? Where can I get a decent job and afford a decent home near decent schools for my kids? There are the questions that keep many 20- and 30-somethings up late at night. Well, they keep most of us up at night. They contribute to a national restlessness that I’ve been chronicling in The Restless Project.  

With your help, I’m starting to see some answers. I’m starting to hear from people who feel like they live in a place where they can….afford to live.  With Credit.com, I recently ranked the top 10 U.S. cities with the fewest residents who are housing poor — the fewest percentage of residents spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.  Now I’m writing short stories about each city. The map above shows how far I’ve gotten, and I’ll keep adding to it as I go. When I am smarter, you’ll be able to click on the faces of the people on the map and go to their story, But for now just click below, or in the caption.

Rounding out the top 10: Louisville, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Minneapolis.

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With a commute like this, it's better to stay home (Bob Sullivan photo )

With a commute like this, it’s better to stay home (Bob Sullivan photo )

If you live on the east coast, you probably (hopefully) were tempted to telecommute today, and you might have to work from home on Monday, too. Staying off the roads when weather is bad is one of the great luxuries that the digital age has brought. It’s also the flip side of the “always-on” problem I write about a lot in The Restless Project.  (Who says I can’t look at the bright side?).  On the other hand, Marketwatch sadly proclaimed last year that technology has led to the end of the snow day, a modern tragedy.  (Who says I can’t a dark cloud inside a silver lining?)

Rusty is pretty distracting when I try to work at home.

Rusty is pretty distracting when I try to work at home.

As anyone who’s tried working from home knows, however, it’s an inexact science. Can you log into the company resources you need?  Can you work without distraction from the kids (or the dog)?  What does your boss expect from you when she or he can’t see you?  These are tricky questions, so it’s best if days like today aren’t the *first* time you telecommute, or  the *only* time you’ve done it this past year.  The folks at FlexJobs sent me some telework tips this week, which are below, and CEO Sara Sutton Fell included an excellent point: Companies that allow occasional telecommuting tend to fare better during weather disruptions because they endure …fewer disruptions.

“(It creates) a more seamless transition to working from home for weather-related reasons,” she said.

Were you working from home today? Did the dog get in the way of your productivity?

Here are the FlexJobs tips:

Identify Your Work Space
Alternatives to a home office, if you don’t have one set up already, include: the attic, the garage, a small closet.  Gather the essentials for quiet work: headphones, cell phone, earplugs, lamp, mouse pad, laptop + charger, pen, paper, etc.
Make Backup Internet Plans
Know which local establishments offer free Wi-Fi ahead of time (if you can venture out).  But don’t show up empty handed. Bring a power strip and all of the cords necessary to charge your various devices (a tote is handy here).  PS You will be popular at Starbucks if you have a power strip.

Save Your Work.  A Lot.

Don’t rely on Google Docs or other online tools; to be safe, save as Word documents.  One fallen tree, one blast of wind, can take your work away in a second. And as long as your cell service is on, you can create your own personal hot spot.
Swap childcare duties with spouse or neighbors
If there are other neighborhood families stuck without daycare, consider swapping children for a few hours.  Or if your partner has vacation days to use, consider asking him/her to be on full-time childcare duty while you work.
Set Expectations
Set rules for when you can or cannot be disturbed, setting a code signal for an emergency, or writing your schedule out for others in the house and prioritizing based on what you must get done.

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Evan Hazlett (Credit: Buzzy Photography)

Evan Hazlett (Credit: Buzzy Photography)

Great hipster places to live. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rio De Janeiro. Toronto. And … Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh?

Get used to seeing the Steel City on a lot of best-places-to-live lists. Pittsburgh neighborhood Lawrenceville, until recently dulled by empty industrial buildings, made that surprise entry into a Business Insider list of the best hipster neighborhoods in the world recently. It’s just the latest accolade for the resurgent Rust Belt city.

Pittsburgh has a lot more going for it than skinny jeans and new restaurants, however. In Credit.com’s recent list of America’s most affordable cities, based on percent of residents who are housing poor, Pittsburgh ranked No. 1.

See earlier stories about Raleigh,  Buffalo, and Oklahoma City.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

Evan Hazlett is a true believer. Hazlett is a globe-trotting, house-flipping, 20-something with boundless energy and the ability to live nearly anywhere. He choses Lawrenceville equally for the business prospects (there’s still plenty of buy low, sell high opportunities) and the friendliness.

“I travel a lot, but I love coming home,” Hazlett, 28, said. “I find Pittsburgh is the easiest place to walk into a bar and just strike up casual conversations with strangers.”

You’ll hear an amazing set of comparisons about Pittsburgh: It’s “Little Brooklyn.” “It’s Silicon Valley East.” It’s a bit of hyperbole, though Carnegie Mellon might be the world’s top cybersecurity school. There’s no exaggerating the real estate boom, however. Home prices tripled in Lawrenceville over the past 15 years, says Pittsburgh-based RealStats, from an average of $46,000 to $130,000 in 2014. The Post-Gazette said in November that 1,000 new apartment units are under construction in the neighborhood, most industrial conversions.

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Elle Adkins

Elle Adkins

Elle Adkins has lived in Oklahoma City all her adult life, so she has a different perspective on the once-sleepy, dusty capital city that’s become a boomtown. “It used to be dreadful, and now we have all this new and exciting stuff,” she said.

Credit.com recently wrote about the top 10 most affordable U.S. cities, defined by the percentage of owners and renters who would be considered “housing poor.” Oklahoma City was second on the list; only Pittsburgh, the subject of next week’s story, ranked higher.

Earlier stories:
*Raleigh: A great place to start over
*Buffalo: She moved back and loves it

Oklahoma City’s story isn’t that different from North Dakota or Texas: While the rest of the country was reeling from the recession, oil-rich, fracking-friendly parts of the country were thriving — and attracting outsiders. The Oklahoma City metro area, now home to 1.2 million, is consistently among the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the country.

The move of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team to Oklahoma City in 2008 — the team was renamed the “Thunder” — seemed to surprise outsiders.  Why would anyone leave the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma? But savvy observers knew the transformation of the old Dust Bowl state was well under way, and the city landing its first Big Four pro sports team was more a culmination of this trend than a coming out party.

Oklahoma City has a distinct advantage over other oil-boom places like North Dakota for obvious reasons. For starters, it’s a capital city, so it also enjoys the spoils of state government spending and the culture a capital brings. 

Perhaps not so obvious is that the city also began an aggressive urban renewal project back in the early 1990s, among the first of its kind, which has been a huge success at drawing a new generation of urban dwellers. At the same time, the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy of 1995 seemed to galvanize pride and development Downtown.

(This story first appeared in Credit.com. Read it there.)

While population growth has slowed a bit in the past couple of years — and it’s an open question how Oklahoma will react to the oil bust — the most recent data suggest the changes are paying off for residents. Median family income has risen from $56,500 in 2010 to $64,600 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census.

But while jobs and affordable housing are plentiful in Oklahoma City, natives like Adkins will tell you it’s not perfect. “It depends on where you want to live,” she said. “There are areas that are less expensive. I just happen to live in the ‘best’ school district and that comes with a price.”

Ironically, one place Adkins dreams of moving to is the old home of the Thunder: Seattle. She longs for the region’s no-AC-required summers, “where you can do things outside without fear or getting heat stroke,” she jokes. Both her grandmother and aunt live in Emerald City suburbs. She visits often, but she’s aware of Seattle’s high housing costs, and knows a move there would be tricky.

Adkins and her husband are separated, and the couple used to have a $1,500 monthly mortgage payment. Even with two incomes, that was a struggle, she said. “Before we divided up our finances, we were having trouble making ends meet. So I guess it’s all relative,” she said.

She moved from the Downtown area to a suburb within city boundaries so her son could attend better schools, but she’s rethinking that now. Rent for two-bedroom apartments in Adkins’ neighborhood costs $900 per month, which sounds affordable to coastal ears but in reality makes things tight. Adkins works for a local university in accounting and earns about $41,000 a year — but takes home about $2,000 per month after taxes andinsurance costs for her son. “I’m willing to move, though, and perhaps I will soon … to someplace more economical,” she said.

Do you live in other top 10 cities like Louisville, Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus or Cincinnati? We’d like to hear from you. (Write to bob@credit.com.)

Oklahoma City by the numbers:

Affordable Cities Ranking: Second

Housing Poor Residents: 28.4%

Median Home Sales Price: $157,175 (Zillow)

Median household income: $64,611 (US Census)



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Danielle Bingham in her backyard with her family of Newfoundland dogs

Danielle Bingham in her backyard with her family of Newfoundland dogs

If you are looking to start over, Raleigh is a pretty good place to start.

This week, Danielle Bingham, 52, moved into a lovely 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house on a half-acre just outside Raleigh, N.C. — a step she couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. She paid $175,000 for the 2,000-square-foot home, and will have mortgage payments of around $1,100 a month

Recently, Credit.com shared a list of America’s least expensive cities, based on the percentage of residents considered “housing poor” (consumers who spend more than 30% of their income on housing). Bingham’s story is the second in series looking into what the cost of living is actually like for residents of these “second tier” cities.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

Bingham first became a homeowner in the late 1990s, when she bought a bargain home outside Seattle with her husband for less than $100,000. The couple did well on the purchase — the value soared to more than $250,000 by 2004. But the marriage didn’t work out, and after splitting the proceeds from a sale, Bingham found she was entirely priced out of homes anywhere reasonably close to her office.

“I could not find a house to buy in Seattle or (nearby) Redmond for less than $300K. I was essentially locked out,” she said. “I ended up renting for several years.”

Within a few years, Bingham left the Seattle area and eventually settled on the up-and-coming Research Triangle area. She’s hardly alone — the region’s population exploded from 1.2 million to 1.7 million from 2000 to 2010, nearly a 50% increase. It’s now about 2.1 million.

“It’s been quite a journey. I am now in a nice house in a well-established neighborhood in Raleigh with a comfortable price tag of $175K,” she said. “It’s actually quite a bit nicer than the house I owned (outside Seattle). I could afford more house, but I am very happy with what I just purchased.”

Boasting several well-known universities, a burgeoning tech industry and a more temperate climate, central North Carolina has long been attractive to northeast residents from the New York and Boston areas looking for cheaper housing that’s not too far away from the kids. But transplants like Bingham show the rest of the country has noticed the area’s low unemployment and inexpensive housing.

And while it’s not New York or Seattle, it’s also not a sleepy second-tier city.

“Raleigh is not the little Podunk place most might think it is,” Bingham said. “It’s full of convenience, culture, arts, dining, lot of things to do. It has a robust IT industry.”

Though her home is outside city limits, she can commute to Research Triangle Park in under 30 minutes.

Most important, she has peace of mind about her financial future.

“I feel like the price of the mortgage is something I can be comfortable with,” Bingham said. “I can enjoy my house without feeling like I would lose it if something went wrong.”

Life in Raleigh, N.C. By the Numbers

  • Affordable Cities Ranking: 6th
  • Housing Poor Residents: 29.8%
  • Median Home Sales Price: $208,000
  • Median household income: $62,313
Bingham's new home

Bingham’s new home

 

The cheapest cities in America, based on percent of residents who are housing poor.

The cheapest cities in America, based on percent of residents who are housing poor.

 



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This Buffalo home is listed at $119,000, according to Zillow.com, below are median sales price of $129,0000

This Buffalo home is listed at $119,000, according to Zillow.com, below are median sales price of $129,0000

Not long ago, Cara was sharing a $3,200 rental payment with roommates. Today, she makes a $770 monthly mortgage payment to own a home that’s about the same size. What happened?

She moved, of course. From Washington D.C. to Buffalo, N.Y.

Recently, Credit.com shared a list of America’s least expensive cities, based on the percentage of residents considered “housing poor” (consumers who spend more than 30% of their income on housing). Today, we start a series of stories from people who live in some of these places. Are homes really that much cheaper in Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Raleigh? Do “second-tier” cities really represent a new Promised Land in America, where families can escape the oppression of outsized mortgage payments? Or is this a mirage, created, in part, because job opportunities are limited in these places?

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

All housing markets are local. Even narrowing data down to the ZIP code doesn’t provide enough detail. An inexpensive “for sale” price might hide the cost of bad schools nearby or poor police protection. We can’t offer any definitive conclusions with this series, which is part of The Restless Project. But hopefully these anecdotes will offer a bit of insight and could invite you to consider new alternatives.

After all, a $770-per-month mortgage payment is sure to get your attention.

Cara, who asked that her identity be withheld because of her profession, moved to D.C. from Buffalo in 2006 after college, seeking opportunity. She found it quickly.

“The job market in Buffalo was not promising for young grads at that time. I took the opportunity to get some experience to see what would happen,” she said. She found a job in finance within about a week.

Finding affordable housing was another problem, however.

First, she tried affordable Germantown, a far-flung D.C. suburb that’s beyond D.C.’s farthest metro subway station. That failed miserably.

“It was a very long commute and was taxing on any form of a social life. After 8 months, I moved to Arlington,” she said. She sub-letted a 9×11 room for about $700 a month; with two roommates, they together paid $3,200 rent on the three-bedroom house.

She hung on for a while, aware the whole time how much cheaper life could be if she moved home. But once she got a few years’ big-city job experience under her belt, Cara bit the bullet, grabbed her warmest winter coat, and migrated north.

By the time she reached her 30s, she was a homeowner, buying a 3-bedroom house with basically the same payment she had on her 9×11 bedroom.

“The home values here are just different in Buffalo,” she said.

She also bought herself peace of mind.

“I feel like I can have a life, pay off my student debt, take a vacation for work-life balance, and still have some to put away for retirement,” she said. “I am not worrying if I can buy meat at the grocery store or have enough gas to get to work. I worried about that in D.C.Put me into credit card debt. Young and stupid! I made the best choice coming back.”

She also changed professions, and now works in research, earning about double what she made when she was in D.C.

In retrospect, it was an easy call for Cara, and helped her move smoothly into the next phase of life.

“I work with the D.C. area a lot and I still think I would be renting in the same profession,” she said.

But what about her social life? Isn’t life in a big city more exciting than life in Buffalo?

“My social life is better off here than in D.C.,” Cara says. “My opinion might be skewed, but moving by myself to a large city was incredibly tough. Roommates are found on Craigslist … that took months … and the area being so transient, it was hard to form what I would consider meaningful relationships. The most I ever felt comfortable was being with people who had also moved from Buffalo to D.C. When it came down to it, we missed the people from home.”

Of course, no place is Shangri-La. Like many cities in the top 10 list, the secret is out on Buffalo. Homes in Buffalo now frequently sell above their asking price, and a Buffalo News story about bidding wars led Marketwatch to say the market was beginning to resemble San Francisco. Given the numbers above, that seems a bit of a stretch. But moving home offers some benefits that are hard to put a price on.

“I get to see my family. My dad passed recently and I am glad I was here,” Cara said.

Life in Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls By the Numbers

  • Affordable Cities Ranking: 10th
  • Housing Poor Residents: 30.6%
  • Median Home Sales Price: $129,900
  • Median Household Income: $50,074
    Do you live in one of these inexpensive cities? Let me know.  Up next: Raleigh

    Do you live in one of these inexpensive cities? Let me know. Up next: Raleigh



 

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Sane places to live in America? My all-in-one map says ‘Go (Mid)West, young people’ — the 2015 version

December 2, 2015 The Restless Project

American families are stressed and squeezed by economic math that works against them. For example, as I wrote recently, homes in zip codes with at least one above-average school cost twice as much as homes in zips without a good school.  I’ll repeat this message because it’s so important: the numbers say families with average […]

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