In this buyers' market, prices are down. But that's not the only reason buyers are finding more affordable homes. They're also finding better bargains in locations. When it comes to figuring out how much you can afford to buy, calculators that let you plug in mortgage and property tax costs are missing a key component, namely whether or not you'll need to keep cars in the garage gassed up to drive everywhere from work to the supermarket, according to Maria Choca Urban of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based research group. When housing and transportation costs gobble up more than 45 percent of a household's pre-tax income, it can strain budgets to the breaking point, according to the group.During the housing boom, "exurbia" also boomed, as buyers moved farther into outer-ring suburbs in search of "affordable" housing, Urban said. Shifting gears In today's environment, home seekers are "getting more of the things they really want," said Greg Herb, a Philadelphia area agent and regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors. "What their transportation costs will be has moved up the ladder to become a higher consideration than it was a few years ago," Herb added. That observation is underscored by a study conducted by Re/Max Northern Illinois, which finds home sale activity in the first half of 2010 to be significantly higher in Chicago suburbs served by commuter train service than in outlying areas requiring driving to the city and other destinations. Green acres To be sure, acknowledges Herb, exurbia has its charms. "Many like a more rural area," he said. Jim Merrion, regional manager of Re/Max Northern Illinois, agrees: "Homes out in exurbia typically deliver a bigger package for the dollar invested than their closer-to-the-city neighbors … As the economy recovers and home prices stabilize, we expect to see buyers return to purchasing larger homes further out, but not quite to the extent as they did before." Money and miles Of course, a convenient commute provides owners more time to actually enjoy their home. More quantifiable than enjoyment, though, are the financial benefits to a convenient location. Center for Neighborhood Technology research finds that if driving is the only way to reach destinations, households spend up to 32 percent of their total income on transportation. High transportation costs have even been linked to greater incidence of foreclosures, noted Urban. Even if your commute is just a few feet to a home office, added Herb, you should consider the distance to major employers and access to public transportation if you're worried about resale. Indeed, a study conducted last year for the non-profit CEOs for Cities finds that housing values in nearly all metro areas hold up better when homes are within walking distance to various amenities, such as shopping. Tracking transit Buyers can let their fingers do the walking when they want to investigate how nearby trains, buses, schools and shopping are to various properties by visiting the website walkscore.com, which rates locations with a score based on how convenient these amenities are to a home. The free site recently expanded to offering a "TransitScore," which rates public transportation access for some 40 cities. On its site, cnt.org, the Center for Neighborhood Technology also offers a housing affordability index for 337 metro areas in the U.S. This interactive index allows users to see what percent of the average income in an area is devoted to both housing and transportation costs, Urban said.
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