After the long pandemic year, city life is reawakening across the country, just in time for a #HotVaxSummer. But that hasn’t tamped down the demand for homes in the suburbs, where you can often get many of the amenities of urban life along with, say, a real home office and an actual backyard.
Trouble is, those things now come at a steep premium. Caught between city dwellings that are pricey and tiny, and sprawling suburban homes whose prices are being bid up by other space-hungry buyers, what’s a house hunter in 2021 to do?
Well, for those who want the best of both worlds, the data team at Realtor.com® set out to find the most affordable suburban alternatives to the nation’s 11 most popular big cities. These places have lower prices than comparable suburbs and the adjacent big city, and they also have more housing inventory, so home buyers have a chance.
“Even before the pandemic, we saw that buyers were looking for more affordable towns near larger cities, because as home prices rose, value and affordability became top of mind,” says Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com. Now, “Thanks to extraordinary demand and low mortgage rates, prices have risen even more,” she says, increasing the imperative to seek out pockets of relative affordability.
Mind you, we’re not saying these places are cheap. For the best bargains, you’d have to head farther out into the United States’ small towns. And while we tried to identify places that had more for-sale inventory, major real estate markets are tight nationwide, so it might still be tough to land the home of your dreams. But we think these places are the best bets for city dwellers looking for more space, but with urban-ish amenities.
We used ZIP codes to zoom in on neighborhoods where home buyers should focus their search, aiming for those that had higher existing-home inventory and lower median list prices in March than their metros as a whole—along with a decent percentage of cultural and outdoor amenities and restaurants per 1,000 residents.
The list was further narrowed down to ZIPs with at least 13 listings in March and at least a C on crime from AreaVibes, which scores neighborhoods on livability. Since many overflow markets have seen prices shoot up during the pandemic, we excluded ZIPs with more than a 40% price change in the past year.
So let’s take a look at some viable big-city alternatives. Because after all you’ve been through, shouldn’t you live your best life?
1. New York
Affordable alternative: White Plains, NY (ZIP code: 10601)
New York metro median list price*: $628,500
10601 median list price*: $430,000
White Plains has long been a go-to ’burb for New Yorkers seeking some greenery and an easy commute to Manhattan. The fairly urban area is home to good restaurants, museums, historical sites, and lots of outdoor activities, but it’s not known as the most affordable place to live.
So why is it on our list? Because it also has a lot of affordable co-ops in high-rise buildings, such as this two-bedroom on the market for $239,000. Hey, it’s way less than you’d pay for an apartment in the city.
“There’s definitely more inventory with co-ops, but I’ve seen more of a move to having your own little sliver of yard,” says Jennifer Palermo, an agent at Sotheby’s International Realty. “You can find a house in the $300,000s if you’re lucky, but it probably needs work.”
To get an updated house with a yard, buyers are looking at somewhere in the $500,000 range, such as this $570,000 three-bedroom Tudor that’s currently on the market—but probably not for long, as single-family homes are flying off the Multiple Listing Service.
2. Los Angeles
Affordable alternative: Irvine, CA (ZIP code: 92618)
Los Angeles metro median list price: $1,198,500
92618 median list price: $1,186,944
Trying to buy a home in Los Angeles now is about as easy getting a record executive here to listen to your demo. As in many markets across the country, demand is high and supply is tight.
More than half of the homes sold this spring went for well over the asking price, which in California these days often starts in the seven-figure range. While the bidding wars in Orange County, where Irvine is located, may not be much better, the prices in some areas are at least a bit lower. A bit.
Just 45 minutes south of downtown L.A., Irvine’s Portola Springs and Oak Creek neighborhoods, set between the University of California, Irvine and Limestone Canyon Regional Park, offer house hunters an opportunity to get into the market without breaking into a “Real Housewives”-style brawl. And while the city itself is landlocked, you’re not far from the beach or from a massive wilderness area.
Right near all the international restaurants of the Irvine Spectrum Center, including the destination Hello Kitty Grand Cafe, buyers can find comfortable homes like this four-bedroom, listed for $958,000, and this manufactured two-bedroom for just $219,999.
Affordable alternative: Hoffman Estates, IL (ZIP code 60195)
Chicago metro median list price: $365,000
60195 median list price: $154,900
The $300,000 that gets you a one-bedroom condo in the downtown Loop area will get you a giant four-bedroom ranch with a yard, or a two-bedroom townhouse (with about $150,000 left over) in Hoffman Estates.
“We’re seeing a lot more people moving in from the city,” says Basel Tarabein, broker-owner of Re/Max At Home. “You get a lot more for your money.”
But those newly minted buyers aren’t just moving to Hoffman Estates for space, although that is a big part of it. Located near the expressway, the town is just 45 minutes from downtown and close to O’Hare International Airport. And there’s plenty to do without even leaving town, with eateries featuring just about every kind of cuisine under the sun, some great school districts, parks, and forest preserves, and even a shopping mall.
4. Dallas, TX
Affordable alternative: Mabank, TX (ZIP code 75147)
Dallas median list price: $383,450
75147 median list price: $244,200
The resort town of Mabank has been attracting second-home owners for years now, due to its proximity to Cedar Creek Lake, one of the largest bodies of water in this lake-obsessed state. Aside from the 326 miles of shoreline, the place offers big-city conveniences, like great restaurants and bars, most with a laid-back vibe.
“Since the pandemic, weekenders have been staying down here full time,” says Buck Gentry, an agent with Coldwell Banker American Dream. “We’ve seen very low levels of listings for waterfront homes, because people are holding onto them.”
Even if you could find a waterfront home in Mabank, it’s sure to cost, like this four-bedroom near the water asking $2,250,000. The trick is to look farther from the lakefront, where you can still find affordable deals, such as this brand-new $225,000 three-bedroom.
5. Houston, TX
Affordable alternative: West Columbia, TX (ZIP code 77486)
Houston metro median list price: $354,500
77486 median list price: $244,651
West Columbia is a quintessential Texas small town. It’s got oaks festooned with Spanish moss and majestic pecan trees dotted along historical sites like Varner-Hogg Plantation (which is currently creating a digital repository documenting local African American history through the Brazoria County 1619 Descendants Project). The town regularly features lots of festivals and events, and you don’t have to search hard to find great Tex-Mex cuisine.
Located 60 miles south of Houston and 30 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico, West Columbia offers the opportunity to buy a piece of that small-town feel with easy access to the city and the beach, starting in the mid $100,000-range. Buyers can find a wide range of cute homes, from this four-bedroom ranch, which just hit the market at $139,900, to a brand-new three-bedroom listed at $293,756.
Affordable alternative: Cherry Hill, NJ (ZIP code 08002)
Philadelphia metro median list price: $334,950
08002 median list price: $269,900
Just a few minutes away from the iconic Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Cherry Hill is one of the most convenient suburbs for getting into Philly. There are plenty of entertainment options, like the renowned Farm and Fisherman Tavern, a three-season farm market and interesting historical sites, like Croft Farm, which was important in both the American Revolution and the Underground Railroad.
For far less than one can find a Philly condo or townhome, buyers can get into single-family houses in Cherry Hill, such as this sprawling four-bedroom asking $299,900.
7. Washington, DC
Affordable alternative: Reston, VA (ZIP code 20190)
DC metro median list price: $510,000
20190 median list price: $434,750
Inspired by the Garden City movement, which emphasized planned, self-contained communities with green space where residential neighborhoods and commercial development were intermingled, this Northern Virginia town has nailed its “Live, Work, Play” motto. It’s got great parks, a flourishing restaurant scene, and cute, walkable neighborhoods like Lake Anne Village. There, you’ll find a European-style plaza for local get-togethers and frequent events like farmers markets, along with shops, cafes, and more.
Wannabe homeowners can find a wide range of condo and townhome options that are far less expensive than in the District of Columbia, such as this $309,000, two-bedroom condo in a tree-filled complex, or, for a few hundred thousand or so more, this large three-bedroom townhome is in walking distance to Reston Town Center and Lake Anne Plaza, asking $599,000.
Affordable alternative: Boca West, Boca Raton, FL (ZIP Code 33434)
Miami metro median list price: $402,500
33434 median list price: $131,900
About an hour’s drive and two counties north, West Boca may not have the crystal blue waters, the art scene, or big-time nightlife that Miami does. However, it boasts plenty of shopping, dining, golfing, and pretty much all of the attributes folks love about South Florida. Oh, yeah, and it’s a heck of a lot more affordable!
Who needs to walk to a crowded beach when you have your own pool? With prices starting in the high $300,000s, house hunters can find pool homes like this $399,999 three-bedroom on a lake, or this three-bedroom in a top-rated school district.
Affordable alternative: Milner, GA (ZIP code 30257)
Atlanta metro median list price: $394,500
30257 median list price: $204,900
Milner, an old railroad town established in 1842, combines a vibrant, small-town vibe with the quiet feel of rural living. It’s not hard to find a home with a big, tree-filled yard, such as this brand-spanking-new $195,500 three-bedroom, or this four-bedroom on more than 27 acres for $744,900.
While residents do appreciate the affordable private space, the area offers plenty of things to do outside the home, from noshing at seafood buffets and barbecue restaurants in the quaint downtown to horseback riding, visiting historical sites, and more. The one drawback of Milner, for folks who still want easy access to Atlanta, is that the town is just over an hour away from the city.
Affordable alternative: Quincy, MA (ZIP code 02171)
Boston metro median list price: $694,950
02171 median list price: $629,900
Just 30 minutes south of Boston, Quincy boasts easy access to public transportation, a historical downtown, a beach, and enough restaurants and bars to find that ideal place where (eventually) everyone knows your name, says Patsy Whitney, associate broker, William Raveis Real Estate-Hingham.
“There are small places people go to over and over again,” she says.
With more folks working from home, the town has seen an influx of Bostonians seeking larger living spaces, good schools, and an overall higher quality of life. Buyers can find nice, bright homes, such as this $639,000 three-bedroom Cape Cod, steps from the ocean.
11. San Francisco
Affordable alternative: North-central San Mateo (ZIP code 94401)
San Francisco metro median list price: $1,049,500
94401 median list price: $1,016,500
San Mateo, which lies on the San Francisco Peninsula, smack-dab between the city and Silicon Valley, is not exactly a steal compared with the notoriously expensive City by the Bay. But in the traditionally working-class area, buyers do tend to get a lot more for their money.
For example, this three-bedroom townhouse with a small yard, right near Los Prados Park, hiking trails, shopping, dining, and more, is listed at $738,000, and this cute four-bedroom right near downtown, in a neighborhood with a new, two-bedroom accessory dwelling unit in the back, at $1,798,000.
Although San Mateo does get a lot of S.F. transplants, it’s not necessarily because of affordability—it’s more about a change of pace. Young families often relocate to town.
“I see a lot of people moving out of the city to come here for the schools,” says Julie Flouty, an agent with Compass. “And then, when their kids grow up, I see them going back to the city for that lifestyle.”
* Median list prices are as of March on realtor.com
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