NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Home prices are on a rocket ride.
One in four metro areas enjoyed double digit price increases over the 12 month period that ended in April. And experts predict the national cost of housing will rise 5.3 percent by year's end.
"That's quite a bit above the norm," says Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, who says that traditionally, housing prices rise one or two points above inflation.
If you already own a home, you're busy counting your coins. But for would-be homeowners looking to break in, the trends can be downright depressing.
The good news is: there are places where the American dream is still affordable.
A port in the storm
We checked with economists, realtors and home builders who track affordable communities. Their formulas vary, but they all compare home prices to wages. The question is, where can a typical wage earner afford at least a median-sized home?
Also in this series ...
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We also looked for communities with promising economies that are on the upswing. Places where homes were affordable but with weaker economic indicators -- such as Pittsburgh where population and economic growth have been weak -- weren't included.
California's "Inland Empire"
Land of movie stars and dotcom millionaires, California has always boasted its share of lavish homes and mansions. And, no, things haven't been getting any cheaper lately for the state as a whole. The Golden State's median home price now stands at $321,950, up 26 percent from a year ago.
But many Californians still seek out cheaper places to live. They're finding them in the so-called Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles and north of Orange County. It's situated on vast flatlands that have been home to farms and vineyards, and it's here that median home prices run just $165,710, according to the California Association of Realtors.
Communities in the empire include such places as Chino, San Bernardino, Riverside. It also includes Ontario, Calif., which is home to an international airport that's a hub for United Parcel Service and that also serves several commercial airlines.
"Fifteen years ago, these were bedroom communities of Los Angeles and Orange County. Now they stand more on their own," said Leslie Appleton-Young at California Association Realtors. "There's manufacturing, trucking, railroads. Development is shifting inland and jobs are following housing."
Future job growth isn't slowing soon, either. Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., says companies like Toys R Us, Nestle and Target have brought 120,000 manufacturing jobs to the area.
"They're attracted to the chunks and chunks of flatland that's so easy to develop," says Kyser. "These are areas that are growing very, very rapidly."
Charlotte, North Carolina
With eight Fortune 500 companies in the city, Charlotte boasts the best of both worlds: diverse economic opportunities and relatively inexpensive housing. (The median price in this bustling southern city -- $145,500 -- rose 3.2 percent in the first quarter from a year ago, but still stands below the national average.)
In fact, Charlotte is the fifth most affordable city with a population less than 600,000, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"It's a well-balanced city," says Terry Orell, senior vice president for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. "We have transportation and distribution, manufacturing, financial services. We're also the sixth largest wholesaler in the country. We have a lot of back office operations and customer-service centers."
Charlotte likes to boast that it has business in its blood. The city once sat at the intersection of two Indian trading routes. Today, traders, businessmen and entrepreneurs fly into the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. That's helped lure 400 foreign-based businesses to set up U.S. operations in the city.
Other employers include Wachovia Bank, Duke Energy, Canadian-firm SPX Corporation and TIAA-Creff -- which plans to expand operations in the city over the next decade.
The city also offers professional sports and cultural centers, like the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. And it's driving distance to skiing at Mt. Mitchell and surfing along the coast.
There are plenty places in Texas where homes are overpriced. Dallas is not among them.
These days, a mid-priced Dallas home is $130,800. But the median-sized paycheck for local workers stands at $57,400. That's enough to afford a home that is 60 percent more expensive, according to Economy.com, which cites it as one of the most affordable places to live.
In fact, Dallas workers have seen their household incomes climb faster than housing costs (5.3 percent vs. 4.7 percent per year) for the last five years.
But the city has had its share of recent troubles. Its office vacancy rate stands at 23 percent. And telecom layoffs, including losses at phone maker Ericsson, haven't helped. Nevertheless, economists still see signs of growth.
"It has big headquarters," says Maharukh Bhiladwall, a senior economist at Economy.com. "It's got distribution, transportation. It's diversified. We just have to wait for Dallas's telecom industry to bottom out -- probably at the end of the year."
Raytheon's local plant in the area has secured a $26.2 million contract to build missiles for Canada. Costco is opening a distribution center, and financial services and retail businesses are starting to expand, too.
Orlando's got Disney World. Miami's got SoBe. But if you're looking to put down roots, Jacksonville may have what you're looking for. The city's small tourist industry, relative to the rest of the state, has actually been a plus.
"Jacksonville doesn't have the tourism base that Miami and Orlando have so that's rebounded to their favor," says Brian Nottage, a senior economist at Economy.com.
The city is home to Mayport and Jacksonville Naval Air Stations, both of which appear to have solid futures. The Jacksonville Port Authority ("Jaxport" to locals) includes a sea port for international trade. Bank of America has a regional headquarters in the city, too, and Citibank employs some 4,000 wage earners.
Jacksonville's median home price in the last year has climbed 7.3 percent to $108,500. But local housing prices are well within the reach of most residents. A typical wage earner in the area can afford a house that's 70 percent more expensive than the median, says Nottage. Jacksonville is also relatively inexpensive when compared to other cities, such as Miami, where average homes run about $172,500, Tampa ($129,700) or Orlando ($127,500).
Those who do buy don't have much to fear in terms of a bubble. The state still attracts seniors and as Baby Boomers seek warmer climates, Jacksonville expects to attract its fair share. But employers, particularly financial services companies, also should continue to be lured by the lower costs of doing business, says Nottage.
The City of Brotherly Love boasts plenty of affordable housing. In fact, residents now appear to be having a hard time finding housing that's more expensive, not less, says Molony, of NAR.
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The median priced home in this city slipped by a slight 1 percent during the first three months of the year to $122,000. However, by the end of 2001, home prices stood at $134,800, nearly 8 percent higher than the year before.
"All the higher-end inventory has been sold so what's selling is in the lower price ranges," Molony said. "The $122,000 is not a true reflection of what we're seeing in the area. It's an artificial price dip."
Nevertheless, the city is still relatively affordable -- especially for city residents who commute to jobs in, say, southern New Jersey where typical homes sell for $214,000.
While growth in Philly has been relatively restrained, wager earners' paychecks have increased 5 percent a year since 1995. That's slightly higher than the 3 percent national average growth for the same time period, according to Economy.com.