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October 24, 2005 | Source: New York Times (Online Edition)

America's Last True Bargains

HERE are the stories of four towns the housing boom forgot.

Their house prices have sat still or crept up slowly while values across the country raced past them at gold-rush pace.

For some people, these cheap markets represent the last true bargains in America. Bit by bit, families are relocating from expensive towns to affordable ones, drawn by the good housing stock and low home costs.

To understand the lure of these overlooked markets, it helps to begin with the median price of an existing home nationally- $220,000 - and see what it buys in these four locations. Go west, to Billings, Mont., and you can buy that median house and still have $80,000 left over. Head south, to Spartanburg, S.C., for an even better deal - housing prices there are about half the national median. In upstate New York, the cheapest market in the Northeast, $220,000 will get you two houses in Binghamton and leave $40,000 to furnish them. In Youngstown, Ohio, you could buy almost three houses.

"It’s nothing compared to the rest of the country - nothing," said Billie Briggs, a real estate agent in Binghamton, N.Y. "We’re still very affordable. I have schoolteachers who are looking to buy houses in the $70,000 to $85,000 range. A lot of times, people can buy mansions."

As with any cheap investment, homeowners in these areas risk buying a seed that will never sprout. Houses are inexpensive for a reason. Often, local economies are depressed, the population is aging and shrinking, and the cities are far from cultural and economic hubs. Families who have moved to these towns for their affordability say it has been painful to leave behind family and friends, yank their children from school and move to places that are physically remote and culturally foreign. Some have contemplated moving back.

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