October 24, 2021

City home prices: Stable, affordable

Take the typical house in Cortland County, maybe on Groton Avenue in Cortland, maybe on Main Street. Maybe in Marathon, maybe in McGraw.

It’s about 1,600 square feet, has three bedrooms, two bathrooms. There’s a good chance it’ll have a detached garage and a nice porch. More than likely, it was built right after World War II.

All that is according to the Census Bureau, which reports it will typically sell for about $96,000.

Now take that middle-class house in the middle-class neighborhood and plop it — lock, stock and basement — elsewhere in America. What’s it worth?

• Try $469,000 in Kirkland, Washington, a fast-growing small city outside Seattle.
• Try $380,000 in Durango, Colorado, which at least offers a view of the Rocky Mountains from a bedroom window.
• Thinking about Palo Alto, California? Try $1.8 million, nearly 19 times more expensive than in Cortland County.

What do those places have that Cortland doesn’t? Location — Kirkland and Palo Alto are outside major metropolises. Growth. Lots of money. Popularity.

“If you wanna go back the last 15 years, about 2003,” said real estate agent Jason Hage, “I remember selling houses in 2007 at that same average price.”

“Cortland County hasn’t changed, frankly, in the last 46 years,” said Nabih Hage, Jason Hage’s father. “The population of Cortland County was about 49,000 to 50,000, give or take, that number hasn’t changed much.”

What has changed over four decades is that Cortland County has shifted from a small manufacturing city to a bedroom community. Its central location between Syracuse, Binghamton and Ithaca, as well as the affordability of housing make a commuter market and a nice place for young families and professionals looking for a first home — the biggest chunk of the Hages’ customer base.

Cortland’s stability insulates homeowners from huge fluctuations in property value — the huge housing crash of 2008 that saw entire neighborhoods abandoned elsewhere didn’t hit Cortland hard. The area has a great school system, according to USA Today’s 2018 state school rankings. Cortland has parks and arts and sports venues. However, many of those who are selling in the area are doing so to move to the Sun Belt.

Check out Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C. New York ex-pats have flocked there. They are, compared to Kirkland, Durango and Palo Alto, relatively affordable. The typical Cortland home would cost between $200,000 and $250,000 there.

On a 30-year fixed mortgage, you could expect to pay more than double in these Sun Belt cities, compared to Cortland. Bankrate shows the average 30- year fixed rate at 4.7 percent. The median house in Cortland would have a monthly mortgage payment of $475. The median house in Asheville would cost $1,048 and Greenville’s median house would cost $1,172. And Palo Alto? $9,335 — every month.

The median household income for each of these cities is almost the same, with Cortland’s at about $43,000 and Greenville residents making an average of $45,000.

Collin Desimone moved to Greenville from Central New York two years ago. He’s impressed not only by the city’s landscape, and its’ economy.

“You see the economy working here right in front of your eyes,” Desimone said, “There’s so much work that there’s not enough people to do it.” Many of the Yankee expatriates he’s met moved to South Carolina for the economy, and the warmth, but quite a few return — Desimone has considered it several times because he missed family and friends.

New York has amenities the Southern communities lack. Schools in both Carolinas have lower public spending per student and eighth-grade reading proficiencies below the national average, according to USA Today’s 2018 state school rating. That’s not the case in New York.

In just five years, Asheville’s median property value has jumped 8 percent and Greenville’s almost 20 percent. Over the same period, Cortland’s has remained largely the same.

“In Cortland, if prices do drop,” Jason Hage said, “we’re talking, you know, within $5,000 to maybe $10,000 in price, so buyers aren’t out of equity that much compared to the rest of the nation. And there’s a certain comfort in that.”