Best U.S. City 2041
August 10, 2021 1:15 PM   Subscribe

I want to invest in real estate. If I had invested in Austin real estate in 2001 I would have done very well. If I wanted to look out 20 more years, factor in climate change, changing demographics and changing market forces, which cities are poised to be the next Austin? According to this great NYTimes piece it may be Milwaukee or Detroit. Where do I buy and why?
posted by jasondigitized to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Buy somewhere where you want to spend the next 20 years investing in its communities.
posted by aniola at 1:23 PM on August 10, 2021 [50 favorites]

Best answer: Austin is actually a bit deceiving, because property taxes are high. So I found a random house in Austin that was $88k in 2005 and $400k in 2020, so that's 8% gain per year, before subtracting out inflation (-2%), which is a 6% gain. Add in property tax, down to 4%. That's not even counting property maintenance and insurance!

I found random house in Burbank CA that was $250k in 2005 and $900k in 2021, property taxes are set, so the gain was 5%, without considering maintenance or insurance. Burbank would have been a much better deal than Austin if you could afford the initial buy-in of $250k instead of $88k.

Milwaukee: Random house worth $75k in 2005 and $140k now, a 1% gain.

So your criteria are:
1) you want to minimize property tax, so find a low property tax state, or one where property tax is stable and other maintenance costs are low
2) you want to buy near the core of the city, property prices elsewhere moderate a bunch more, and you are counting on new mega-development to really uplift your price instead of riding up with the general wave
3) you want a city that doesn't build too much but is popular.
4) You have to check this criteria to make sure none of it shifts dramatically due to changes in government or local laws
5) there is a price floor on how little banks will offer on a mortgage, approximately $100k, so you are generally in on your own below that.

Given all this, I'd stay away from places like Milwaukee or Detroit that is not yet upcoming. You want in on the ground floor, not the basement. I'd pick a random suburb in California if you can afford the buy-in. This should also be your comparison metric. If not, then Colorado has fair property tax rates, and appreciation. Also, if some random suburb is rising, then the major US cities will be too, because they will drive companies to relocate, business growth, and cause outside income to flow to other places. So don't discount places like Boston or NYC.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:10 PM on August 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

I think aniola has a point. In some sense, real estate purchases are less like putting money in the stock market and more like a long-term relationship. With the caveat that my investment property is 200 years old and so that does factor in, I spend at least an average of half an hour or an hour a day doing work on my investment property (usually remotely), including thinking about what repairs/improvements need to be done, researching how to do them, sometimes hiring people to do them, researching regulations for historical properties, reading up on changing local rules and regulations for landlords (recently: newly required lead paint lead-safe certification for all landlords, and changed bedbug regs), advertising the units, showing the units, doing background checks on prospective tenants, showing up for move-outs/move-ins, etc. (and some landlords, heaven forbid, have to chase up tenants for rent or eviction etc.). I'm not saying I don't enjoy it, because I usually do and I'm glad I took the plunge, but it's not a hands off endeavor by any means - and I think even with a property manager, you're going to feel tied to the city you choose. Given that, I think it makes sense to have the personal factor play a fairly large role, in addition to the financial factor. Where do you want to spend the next 20 years visiting on a semi-regular basis, and do you want a fairly intense long-term relationship with another house?
posted by ClaireBear at 2:11 PM on August 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also want to echo The_Vegetables about including taxes and running costs into the calculus. The taxes on my property in Philly are comparably about half of what we're paying in the Midwest, and the utilities differ significantly too. Over the long run, it makes a huge difference. Assuming you're planning on renting the property out, different places have hugely different regulations for landlords in terms of landlord/tenant behavior (whether you're obligated to relet if the tenant breaks his/her lease, amount you can raise rent per year, etc.), and also different places impose different burdens on landlords (business licenses, taxes, extra water/sewer charges for multiunits, certifications about various things like lead that can be $500 each, etc.). All of this adds up and really can change the equation about profits. Of course, larger seismic changes also matter (global warming, etc.), but I think the above things matter just as much.

If I were you, I'd spend some time on Bigger Pockets (a landlord site that includes a lot of landlords with only a property or two, as well as those with more). I've found that site very helpful over the last 5+ years. Investors from all over the country talk about all this stuff, and there might even be threads speculating on the best places to invest. You might also want to consider a REIT if you either lack the appetite for all the work I described above, or if you're not confident enough to wager so much money on a single property in a single city.
posted by ClaireBear at 2:17 PM on August 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

This is hard to do, particularly as a small divergence in progress over a couple of years, can end up with a big divergence over 20 years. I think it is easier to identify neighborhoods within cities that might go up in value. In the UK that would mean somewhere with period housing stock (probably prewar) and green space, bounded by good transport links including public transport, in a city or town with good access to jobs, that is undervalued currently.

The things that have driven Austin's desirability include that it is a college town for a university which is a major draw from a populated state, the weather is of the kind that has been popular since the invention of air conditioning, its status as a state capital means that there is a jobs base and it developed a sizeable software industry. Also, it was already cool before 2001 (I have only been once, in 2000, it was definitely a great place by then). If Milwaukee and Detroit make money for real estate investors it will be for different reasons. Midwestern weather is hard, UWis and UMich are elsewhere. Detroit could easily go up from a low base but individual investors may or may not make money. And Milwaukee is close enough to Chicago (which is not too expensive) to potentially get bypassed as people move to the real big city.

If I was betting, I would say that Colorado was a good place to look, maybe Boulder, although perhaps it's already expensive. Or, perhaps Tempe or Tucson in Arizona - it would probably need to be an in-demand style of property. For bigger cities, Houston and Atlanta. I think you could do worse than look at where is turning purple/blue politically as a starting point for more research.
posted by plonkee at 2:24 PM on August 10, 2021

Unless you intend to live in the property yourself, I would encourage you to consider an REIT as well (or, indeed, other forms of investment entirely). Remember, nowadays you will be competing with professionals who have entire research departments dedicated to finding good property bets and who have the scale to amortize in the pain-in-the-assedness of owning property.

If you will live there, then first make a list of every notable university campus in the entire country, and sort them by the various factors that you find compelling. This may uncover unexpected spots you'd not have heard of otherwise.
posted by aramaic at 2:29 PM on August 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Investing in real estate is hard and requires a lot of local knowledge. If you are planning to be a residential landlord, you can absolutely do quite well, but there are also lots of ways to lose money in a hot market. You can for example:

- Overpay on the property
- Buy a property that's not fit for purpose
- Need to do expensive renovations and end up overpaying
- Need to do expensive renovations and get screwed by your GC or architect
- Get sued by your tenants
- Have to sue your tenants
- Have your tenants trash the place
- Get screwed by the city (on fines, fees, taxes, you name it)
- Get screwed by your management company, super, or handyman
- Get screwed by your neighbors

Plus, the more hands off you are, the easier it is to lose money. So if you want to be a landlord, my suggestion is first, try it close to where you live! That way you can get hands-on experience with all aspects of the project and know what it entails. If you want residential properties to be a major part of your asset allocation, it will have to take a lot of your time and effort, and picking the right property and the right team will be more important than picking the right market.

Investing in a REIT doesn't have these problems, but the tax disadvantages are significant. Being a landlord is probably the most tax-incentivized form of investment in the country (just ask Donald Trump) but most REITs are optimized for income which is then taxed annually at full rates (unlike stock dividends which are taxed at cap gains rate and which are in any event a smaller % of the return mix).
posted by goingonit at 2:44 PM on August 10, 2021 [9 favorites]

A REIT may be a good idea. You may also want to look at Fundrise.

As far as markets are concerned, Denver has already happened. Boise is in early stages of happening.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:52 PM on August 10, 2021

I agree with the idea of moving yourself, if possible, and investing in something in your own neighborhood. But in terms of climate change, I would lean toward Portland, Maine, Burlington VT, or upstate New York cities like Buffalo, taking care to not buy property at risk of flooding. I would stay away from the Western U.S. because of drought and wildfires.
posted by pinochiette at 3:58 PM on August 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So, just like any other investing, investing in a single thing is inherently riskier than diversifying. The best way to get a good return is to invest in a few different places instead of just one.

The tendency in any sort of speculation is to find the thing that’s most like the last thing that won. In that case, I think a good bet on “the next Austin” would be Columbus, which, like Austin, is an already-large and fast-growing capital city with an enormous university. People who visit Columbus for the first time often wonder why they’d never heard of it before. That’s a sign that it’s undervalued nationally.

That said, proverbial lightning rarely strikes twice. Columbus is unlikely to be a bad investment, but it’s also unlikely to be an Austin 2001-2021 investment. The city that blew up before Austin (Portland) is neither a state capital nor a college town. Neither was San Jose. The next city will probably be something different.

Thinking about this, the one characteristic that a lot of the cities I’ve mentioned so far share is that, at the arbitrary start point of their trajectory, they were not the primary city, and sometimes not even the secondary city in their region. But then, for reasons of either cost or quality of life, people began moving out of the primary cities (Dallas/Houston, Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland/Cincinnati/Pittsburgh), and these winning cities were in position to capitalize on that migration.

With that in mind, I’d suggest taking a look at today’s winners and guess where people who get tired of those cities in five or ten years will go. So I’d start with maybe Austin, Denver, Nashville, and Atlanta. Austin is tricky because the most obvious candidate, Waco, is experiencing a boom of its own for different reasons. Probably not the right time to buy in Waco. For Denver, my first thought is Fort Collins, which is a nice college town with many of the same advantages as Denver. I suspect that Fort Collins might be too close to really work, though. Maybe Colorado Springs, or Laramie? Nashville and Atlanta are close enough together that they could spill over into the same place, which logically would be Chattanooga but more likely would be Knoxville. Knoxville actually has a lot going for it - big college, lots of tourism from the national park and Gatlinburg/Dollywood, favorable taxes, weather, etc. If I were betting, that’s probably what I’d bet on.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:18 PM on August 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

a huge amount of the nominal appreciation since 2001 has come from interest rates declining.

like if you look at the Austin data from Ofheo, since 2001 home prices have compounded at 5.8%, but if you back out the impact of interest rates they've compounded at 3.1% - which is honestly pretty great - its a better than than inflation return on housing.

But - lets say Austin still compounds at 3.1% for the next 20 years? But interest rates goin up 2%? You'd only return 1.1%. Its a levered investment so it'll still look ok (like 4%)) but nothing like the 12% levered return you would have generated this cycle (those are gross of tax & maintenance so take a few % out of them)

tldr - a huge proportion of price return has come from interest rates and that cannot repeat itself.
posted by JPD at 4:58 PM on August 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

The house on the corner I wanted that was purchased for $80,000 three years ago, is on for $220,000. A house across the street, that surely sold for maybe $185,000 two-three years ago, just sold for $350,000. Buy where you have a possibliity of remote work, that feeds into a nearby mega-expensive metropolis. That is what is going on here. In my modest mixed neighborhood, people from Saudi are investing, and just letting houses sit empty, they pay to make them look lived in by rotating cars, keeping the lawns cut, etc.
posted by Oyéah at 5:08 PM on August 10, 2021

I think Austin and Detroit are already huge. If you want to invest in the future, I would look at Boise. It might be too late already (ideal would have been three to five years ago), but there's nothing but growth in Boise.

And you know I always wonder what will happen to the midwest. I mean there are cool midwestern college towns like Columbus OH, Iowa City, Ann Arbor, etc - and I always think these places should grow at some point when the west becomes unaffordable, as is happening now.

But right now the obvious front runners are places like Boise, in my mind.
posted by crapples at 5:28 PM on August 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Austin and Portland became destinations because a bunch of Gen X folks thought those would be cool places to live. All those sun belt hot spots are places are where boomers though it would be swell to live. For a location to appreciate in relative value there has to be a certain amount of irrational exuberance and demographics driving it. Otherwise it will just see average growth.

I see lots of folks discussing what might draw people to a particular city, but remember that there are lots of folks who don't move, most don't move far, and those that do it's for college, immediately after college for a career and then retirement. And less and less people are moving around - so good luck figuring out where the Millennials and zoomers think are destination cities. I don't think it's Boise.

There hasn't been much talk about the negatives. Most colleges outside urban centers are struggling to attract and retain talent, most are not growing and many are shrinking in both employees and students. Prepandemic enrollments were down, but it was gradual. Last year saw a 13% decrease. Remember the Great Recession of 2007? Well folks stopped having kids and that means those little angels ain't going to college so after the pandemic enrollment is going down. Like off a cliff. These regional schools - upwards of 40% decline in enrollment. And just think of all the folks who are have put off kids cause the pandemic - the numbers are never going back up.

But the bigger issue is who has the assets right now. Boomers hold most of the cash and the vast majority of the property. They will start retiring in large number, releasing over 6 million houses into the market between now and 2030. And then in 2030 things really start to unravel. These won't be evenly distributed - dumping their second homes and moving to the sun belt will make a few locations big winners, but many more locations will have more houses than people.
posted by zenon at 8:31 PM on August 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Something that might be discounted in the previous discussion is the impact of capital gains taxes. If we're doing a comparison between investment options, we need to beat the stock market. If we assume that we're not investing in a tax-advantaged instrument (IRA, 403b, 401k, etc.), then any gains on the stock market will be taxed at... maybe 40% if the Dems hold the house and senate in 2022? You're sheltered from the first $250,000/$500,000 (single/married) of capital gains on the sale of a primary residence, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:55 PM on August 10, 2021

Stay away from Detroit, property taxes are punitive. Like, crazy punitive. They are trying to rebuild their broken infrastructure, so it's hard to fault the logic, but it's like $1000 a month on a $150k house in some neighborhoods.

Asheville and Boise are in the process of happening, but you'll need cash and to get in there, like, right this minute. Boulder and Austin have essentially already happened. Birmingham is in early stages, as are Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Knoxville.

Keep in mind the next 20 years are going to be substantially different than the last 20. I dont just mean falling college attendance, I mean weather / climate issues making certain places unlivable. I would not buy anything in the southwest (heatwaves, water supply issues), Texas (same, plus power grid issues) or too close to the Atlantic shore (massively increasing hurricanes).
posted by ananci at 8:21 AM on August 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Stay away from Detroit, property taxes are punitive. Like, crazy punitive. They are trying to rebuild their broken infrastructure, so it's hard to fault the logic, but it's like $1000 a month on a $150k house in some neighborhoods.

I don't see any that high, but you are generally correct. I see $1500-$2000 in property tax on a property that is barely $100k, and a $200k property that had taxes over $4k.

I would not buy anything in the southwest (heatwaves, water supply issues), Texas (same, plus power grid issues) or too close to the Atlantic shore (massively increasing hurricanes).

I don't think you can generalize that much. Solar and wind power are going to revolutionize the southwest in terms of energy costs, and east of I35 is predicted to get even wetter, meaning 50+inches of rain per year. This includes half of Texas. Maybe Florida is in trouble due to hurricanes, but within 100 miles of the Atlanic coast contains something like 1/4 of the US population.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:54 PM on August 11, 2021

My completely uneducated opinion would be to look at some really pleasant college towns. I loved the town I went to school in — Columbia, MO. I think a lot of us loved it, but it was just a given that you couldn’t stay because you could never get a job there. Well, with remote work, maybe now you can? Lots of those towns are really nice and have walkable downtowns, and are islands of liberalism since the college tends to be the main industry. Hell, now I’m thinking I should hop on Zillow and see what houses in Columbia are going for…
posted by panama joe at 9:42 PM on August 12, 2021

good luck figuring out where the Millennials and zoomers think are destination cities. I don't think it's Boise

It's not about being an existing destination city, it's about checking certain boxes and not being out of reach. Idaho is the part of the PNW that is still attainable. Portland was viewed as permanently weird and not a huge growth prospect as recently as the mid '90s. Which is when you could get the screaming deals....if you wait until the New York Times Magazine is writing about it, you've missed the boat entirely.

Boise is a picturesque setting with mountains and forests immediately nearby, and desert not far, a cute historical downtown with cute houses nearby (or space to build on the outskirts, which is a laughable commute compared to built-out cities), a greenbelt and trail system. Here's the bus map.

The city has historical character that hasn't yet been obliterated or overwhelmed by cookie-cutter development and from from following it casually, seems to have some awareness of preserving that as development accelerates....

The University is not just about working there, rather it brings in a steady rotation of younger people and helps offset the otherwise extremely conservative culture which is really the signal drawback of Boise and ID -- which will shift over time to produce a similar split as between Portland and the rest of Oregon.

Sun Valley and Jackson Hole already exist as enclaves. The writing is on the wall for Boise (and Coeur d'Alene, between Boise and Portland, and the parts of WY that are within reach of Bozeman and Billings).

Really, Boise is an on-the-nose parade of Stuff (Millennial) White People Like. As others have said, if anything it's probably too late to get drop on it. LAT, Nov. 2019: "‘Go back to California’: Wave of newcomers fuels backlash in Boise"

Columbus might be wiser, as an investment, but the overlooked regional cities and nearby towns in the PNW are by far more desirable in my eyes.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:28 AM on August 14, 2021

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