The red-hot housing market in booming cities across the United States has made the dream of owning a home out of reach, not only for low-income families but also for white-collar professionals.
"Many of the overheated real estate markets throughout the country have become unaffordable for the majority of the population," said Jack McCabe, a housing industry analyst in Deerfield Beach. "Many people are paying well over 50 per cent of their income for shelter. It leaves no money for savings or sometimes even for recreation."
After So Young Kim took a teaching job in Florida, her friends in Chicago gushed that she and her husband would be able to afford twice the house when they moved.
Kim had just received a doctorate and a job offer from a university that would double her salary to more than $47,000. But the prices of even small bungalows climbed far beyond what the young couple could afford even when they stretched their target price to an uncomfortable $300,000. So after several disappointing drives around the area and countless Internet searches, they ended up back where they started -- in an apartment.
Real estate experts warn that housing prices in many markets are too quickly outpacing the incomes of most workers. The widening gap affects families across the country, from Washington DC and Rhode Island to Florida in the South and Nevada and California in the west.
In California, the situation has long been the worst: Only 17 per cent of households could afford a home with a median price tag in April, according to the California Association of Realtors.
By May, the median home price in California climbed to $522,590 -- more than double the price in most other states. To buy the typical home with monthly payments of $3,067, a California family would need to earn about $122,700 to qualify for a conventional loan.
In other high-cost states, the situation is not much improved. The average family in Florida earns nearly $44,000, which fell 26 per cent short of the amount needed to finance a median-priced home last year, according to a study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
National statistics show that families can afford a home in many other cities around the country. The typical household earns about $56,323, enough to buy a home costing $250,900 and 133 per cent of what's needed to afford the median-priced home of $188,800, said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.
The most expensive housing prices can be explained by the same three reasons that have drawn the biggest spenders for years: location, location, location.
The 10 most exorbitant cities include warm-weather climates along the coast, such as San Francisco, Honolulu and West Palm Beach, and huge urban centers, such as New York and Boston.
To break into these hot markets, buyers are resorting to new and uncertain options for mortgages.
"It's really, really tough for the first-time buyer. The only way to just get in the door is to take advantage of the low-interest rates and the riskier mortgage instruments like the interest-only loans," said Leslie Appleton-Young, the chief economist for the California Association of Realtors.
Buyers are choosing adjustable-rate mortgages that keep payments low for a few months to a few years, or 40-year mortgages that allow them to stretch payments over an additional 10 years.
Fannie Mae, the top buyer and guarantor of home loans, is offering a new program that allows low- and middle-income buyers new ways of qualifying for loans. To help cover the cost of their monthly mortgage payments, applicants can use federal housing vouchers or rent they would receive from relatives or others living with them.
"The down payment used to be the issue, but the problem now is that housing prices have climbed so quickly that a lot of consumers are struggling to make their payments affordable," said David Dworkin, vice president for community lending partnerships.
In Florida, Kim said she feels the skyrocketing housing prices have left her and many others behind, and that they have no chance of catching up. When she received her job offer, she and her husband excitedly pored through Internet real estate ads, looking at pictures of bungalows and back yards where she imagined their three young children would play. But since they moved into the rental apartment in Boca Raton, they have not even tried to look at any homes for sale.
"It seems to me the biggest difficulty is buying the first house," said Kim, an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. "Once you have the first house, it's easier to move up to a bigger house,"