Buying a home in Lawrence is more affordable for most residents than it was 20 years ago, according to a new study, but it's still a tougher prospect than just about anywhere else in Kansas.
"You've seen home price gains, which weigh in affordability, but you also see a rise in incomes ... and a drop in mortgage payments," said Zoltan Pozsar, an economist with Moody's Economy.com.
Pozsar's analysis showed that it takes 13.3 percent of the average Lawrencian's income to buy a house here, down from 19.4 percent in 1985. But elsewhere it takes the average Kansan just 9.8 percent of their income to buy a home - and among the state's metropolitan areas, only Kansas City, at 14.7 percent, took a bigger bite out of residents' wallets.
Mayor Boog Highberger, who said he's nearly ready to appoint a task force on affordable housing, wasn't swayed by the statistics showing Lawrence residents are having an easier time house-hunting.
"They're talking about average income, and I think there's more income disparity than there used to be," Highberger said. "I think there's a perception that it's harder for working people to buy a home in Lawrence."
And City Commissioner Sue Hack said she was troubled by the numbers showing Lawrence is, in Kansas, a relatively expensive place to live.
"That's not a contest where we want to be in the higher tier," she said.
Lawrence housing prices have risen steadily over the years; the average single-family home sold in October went for $201,000, up from $179,000 a year earlier.
Median household incomes in Douglas County also have seen steady gains, from $26,402 in 1989 to $38,868 in 2003, the most recent year available.
Even with recent increases, though, interest rates for 30-year mortgages now are much lower than a generation ago - around 6 percent now, compared to around 13 percent in 1985.
"If home prices have steadily increased and interest rates have dramatically decreased, then I certainly buy into that idea, that it's easier to buy a home today than it used to be," said Rob Hulse, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
Don Schmidt got his real estate license in 1981, when mortgage rates were even higher - around 18 percent.
"Interest rates are so reasonable" now, Schmidt said last week.
Schmidt said those low rates, combined with a wider availability of home loans, have changed the housing market, making homebuyers more mobile.
"I do see people are moving more," he said. "It used to be we'd sell a house and the client would stay in it 20 years. Now we're lucky if they stay for six years."
City officials, though, are well aware of Census figures showing that 11,000 of the city's workers commute rather than living in Lawrence. That figure, they say, can be attributed to relatively high housing costs here.
"When we put it beyond the ability of people to be in the community where they choose to work," Hack said, "that's not the kind of community we want to be."
A new Moody's Economy.com study shows that Lawrence is more affordable for residents to live in than it was 20 years ago based on the percentage of income it takes to buy a house in the city.
Today, it takes 13.3 percent of the average Lawrencian's income to purchase a house, down from 19.4 percent in 1985.