The median list price in Atlanta is now $184,900, up 12.1% from the previous year, according to the National Housing Trend Report for February 2014, published by Realtor.com. This puts Atlanta slightly under the national median list price of $199,000. Where Atlanta shines, however, is in inventory: It sits near the top of the report's 146 regions in terms of total number of listings. Real estate currently listed for sale on Realtor.com ranges in price from less than $10,000 for distressed properties to $15.9 million for a palatial estate in upscale Buckhead, the "Beverly Hills of the South." Here's a look at what you can buy for $200,000. (For more information on buying a home, see: A Guide to Buying a House in the U.S.)
Home prices in Atlanta peaked in mid-2007, then fell for the next several years, hitting bottom in early 2012. Since then, prices have been slowly recovering. The most recent Beige Book, the comprehensive economic report published eight times per year by the Federal Reserve, indicates several favorable factors in the Atlanta real-estate market: increased home sales, higher demand for residential mortgages, a rise in new home construction, strong multi-family construction and a decline in mortgage refinancing.
What $200,000 Will Buy
With prices still below the 2007 highs, buyers can find a good deal in many neighborhoods in the city and surrounding suburbs. "The metro Atlanta area is widespread and diverse, and what $200,000 can get you varies," says Maura Neill of Maura Neill & Associates, RE/MAX Around Atlanta. "As of Monday, March 24, 2014, a search of $200,000 homes in the MLS gives us 95 detached [single-family) results and seven attached (condo, townhome, multi-family) results."
"In single-family homes, expect properties to be about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet," Neill says. Paying $200,000 gives buyers a wide variety of choices, she reports. "A peek at some of these listings found a renovated three-bedroom, two-bath, 1940s cottage (1,900 square feet) in East Lake and a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1960s brick ranch with basement (1,800 square feet) in East Cobb (Marietta) needing a little updating. The same price would also buy a three-bedroom, two-bath, brick 1990s ranch (1,600 square feet.) in a lake neighborhood in Duluth or a larger three-bedroom, two-bathroom Charleston-style two-story with double front porches (1,800 square feet) in Grant Park/Peoplestown." Many of the properties at this price point will feature hardwood floors, walk-in closets, fenced-in backyards and fireplaces. Some offer garages or carports and kitchen updates, such as stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops. In addition, many houses are in walking distance to both public transportation and area schools.
Buyers interested in attached houses will find that "1,100 to 1,400 square feet and two or three bedrooms is the norm," says Neill, citing a two-bedroom, 2.5-bath townhouse (1,300 square feet.) for sale on Atlanta's Westside. Often included: hardwood flooring; kitchen updates, including granite countertops and glass-tile backsplashes; walk-in closets; assigned parking spots and community amenities, such as swimming pools, laundry facilities and green space.
"The Atlanta market is still remarkably affordable," says Neill, who points out that just over 20,000 houses are for sale in the metro Atlanta area (not including for-sale-by-owner listings). Though the 104 homes offered at exactly $200,000 are just half of 1% of the inventory, "there are myriad choices for buyers in surrounding price points, and truly something for everyone in Atlanta's diverse market," she adds.
Getting the Most House for Your Money
After the 2008 financial crisis, the Atlanta market – along with countless others nationwide – was flooded with foreclosures. "Foreclosures and short sales used to be the answer to getting the most house for your money in the metro Atlanta area," says Neill. Foreclosure filings for Atlanta, however, dropped significantly over the past year, with a 33.3% decrease in auctions and 26.4% fewer bank-owned properties, according to RealtyTrac.com, an online real-estate information company and marketplace for foreclosed properties in the United States. Currently, Metro Atlanta ranks close to the national average, with one in every 1,162 homes in foreclosure (compared to about one in 1,170 homes nationwide).
Here's how to get the most house for your money today: "Buy into an area where you feel at home and don't be afraid of a little cosmetic updating – not just doing painting and lighting, but also replacing flooring and fixtures (like faucets, door knobs, etc.), removing wallpaper, and budgeting for new appliances." Of course, it's important to budget for any anticipated expenses, taking into consideration what can wait (the doorknobs, for instance) and what the buyer would like to get done right away (for example, replacing the shag carpet and pulling down the outdated wallpaper). Buying at the top of one's price range makes it difficult to tackle updating projects, so it's always a good idea to make sure there's room in the budget for the updates the buyer considers essential.
Buyers who can visualize a home's potential and are willing to put in some work can end up with more house for their money, even after the updates are paid for. "Truly savvy buyers – or buyers with a realtor they can trust – can see past cosmetic flaws and dated fixtures to the "bones" of the house – the floor plan, the room sizes, the potential. That will get you the most house for the money," says Neill.
Buy or Rent?
Across the nation, the gap between the cost of renting and buying has narrowed, partly due to rising interest rates and home prices. Trulia's Rent vs. Buy Report, released by online real estate aggregator Trulia.com, showed that a year ago it was 44% cheaper to buy a house than rent one; today the figure has dropped to 38%. The report compares costs for a seven-year period, using five calculations:
- The average rent and for-sale price for an identical set of properties;
- The initial total monthly costs of owning (assuming 20% down and a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 3.5% interest, as well as annual maintenance, insurance, utilities and property-tax expenses) and renting (monthly rent plus renter's insurance);
- The future total monthly costs of owning and renting;
- One-time costs and proceeds (for owning, this includes closing costs and capital gains tax of 15% for gains above the $500,000 annual exclusion; for renting, this includes one month's security deposit); and
- The net present value (NPV) to account for opportunity cost of money (this compares cash flows over time).
The decision to buy or rent depends on a number of factors, including how long you plan to live in the house, and your mortgage rate and tax bracket. For example, if you secure a 4%, 30-year fixed-rate loan; are in the 15% tax bracket and plan on living in a home for seven years, it might be 28% cheaper to buy than rent in Atlanta, according to Rent or Buy calculator on Trulia.com. If you plan on staying in place for only two years, however, it would be 20% cheaper to rent than buy, all other factors remaining the same.
The Bottom Line
Atlanta homebuyers can find adequate inventory at the $200,000 price point and significantly more properties if they expand their search slightly above and below that figure. Homes in this price range tend to be well-maintained and updated properties in the 1,500 to 2,000 square foot range for single-family detached homes and the 1,100 to 1,400 square foot range for attached homes, including condos and townhouses. Buyers willing to look beyond a home's cosmetic flaws can end up getting the most house for their money.