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Why don’t you buy a house?

by Jessica Nelson and Gabriella Brown

Ask young people in Morgantown why they don’t put down roots here and many will tell you the same thing: They can’t afford it.

“I don’t know when we’d be able to buy a house,” Melanie Raleigh said. “At the very least, like if we’re looking in Morgantown, probably never.”

Raleigh moved to West Virginia when she was a child and would have been willing to live elsewhere, but she stayed because of her partner’s “pure stubbornness,” she said. “He likes West Virginia.”

It took Raleigh’s parents 20 years to save a down payment for a house. She thinks she’s doing a little better, but even then, she said they are still saving for that down payment.

Raleigh, 33, is working toward a master’s in psychology and her partner, who is 38, works in accounting. They’ve saved for a while, but their budget remains tight at $100,000 maximum. At this point, Raleigh said they’ll have to set their sights elsewhere.

“It seems like … anything that’s decently close to town is out of our price range,” she said. “There are houses all around me right now that are up for sale. The house right next to me just got purchased for more than a quarter of a million dollars.

“So we’ve been looking at other places like Grafton.”

Married couple Meagan Szorady, 29, and Nick Szczecinski, 31, transplanted to Morgantown from Cleveland at the start of the pandemic, when Szczecinski accepted a job with West Virginia University. They settled into a $300,000 home in South Park.

“Back in Cleveland,” Szorady said, “a house like this would maybe be like $150,000 or $200,000.”

 The snapshot statistics

According to Melissa Hornbeck, a broker with White Diamond Realty LLC, housing prices in Monongalia County are, in general, “higher than the national median, as well as our neighbors to all sides of us, including Pennsylvania. Morgantown proper is higher than parts of the county but comparable to others such as Cheat Lake.”

White Diamond Realty regularly publishes a real estate snapshot for the greater Morgantown area. According to Hornbeck, “The average selling price for a single-family detached home in 2020 was $326,253, while attached was $192,396.”

The snapshot’s statistics for 2021 show the average price for a detached home is over $329,000, and the average price for a townhouse or condo is around $215,000.

Carolyn Brown, 31, and her boyfriend rent a townhouse, and while they’ve looked at buying a house, she knows her credit score will be a major barrier to securing a mortgage.

“[The credit’s] not even awful; it’s just, I know how banks can be,” she said. “I know that right now, a bank will just kind of laugh me out of the room.”

A true “townie,” Brown faces another struggle many young Morgantown residents share.

“I know housing gets a little bit cheaper the further away from Morgantown you get. But we have our families here,” she said. “It’s also expensive to move away … Everything, when it comes to moving, just costs so much money that you get kind of stuck in a situation that you might not want to be in.”

The rental trap

Raleigh and her partner have been in the same apartment for over 10 years. Their apartment building still has steam heating, which she said won’t be found in a building less than 100 years old, and most of the electrical outlets aren’t grounded.

“This place is kind of falling apart,” Raleigh said, “but it’s also only $700 a month, and it includes utilities.”

According to Victoria Shuman with Howard Hanna Realty, rent in Morgantown ranges from around $400 to $1,000. Census data from 2015-19 puts Morgantown’s median rent at $851, making Raleigh’s apartment one of the most affordable.

The rent for a house is much steeper. Shuman said a townhouse can rent from anywhere between $1,200 to $2,500 per month, and a detached house can run from $1,000 to $3,500 per month.

“Rents are pretty high in Morgantown,” said Shuman. “If your plan is to stay in the area for more than two to three years, I would always suggest buying, especially with interest rates being favorable.”

Hornbeck agrees. “More often than not, your mortgage payment will be less than your rent payment.”

This is true for Brown, and her boyfriend, who rent a townhouse for $950 a month, plus utilities. As they’ve looked into buying, they’ve considered keeping their monthly mortgage payment similar to what they currently pay in rent and could afford a house upwards of $200,000, she said — about the average price of a townhouse.

“I did the math one time, and if my rent was a mortgage payment, like a 30-year mortgage payment, this place would be valued at like $307,000, which is ridiculous.”

Shuman said the advantages of renting including having no maintenance and nothing to sell when you’re ready to move. Pros of owning your own home, though, include “putting your money toward an investment, being able to make alterations” and it could be profitable if you sell the house later.

Hornbeck also points to other financial pros of homeownership, such as the tax benefits and appreciation of value/growing equity. “When you own your own home, the benefits of owning far outweigh the cons.”

When Szorady and  Szczecinski made the move to Morgantown, they decided to take the plunge and purchase a house instead of renting as they had before.

“We kind of knew that if we rented, we wouldn’t stop renting,” Szorady said. “There’s never a good time to put down a bunch of money. So we kind of looked at townhomes, but we sort of wanted our own place, our own yard.”

For Szorady and Szczecinski, the draw of homeownship was primarily in the freedom of it.

“In the place we had lived in before in Cleveland Heights, the landlord was stretched thin,” said Szorady. “And so things really didn’t get maintained in the way you want them to be. And so we wanted to be able to say, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong with this.’ We can just call someone and have it fixed.”

“Or how we powerwashed this porch a couple days ago,” Szczecinski added. “It was awesome. Yeah, we rented the thing, we blasted away the dirt and we didn’t have to wait or ask permission or look at garbage peeling paint like we used to.”

Dylan Sheldon, 28, and his wife bypassed renting altogether and bought their first home in Bridgeport, an 850-square-foot fixer-upper. They now live in a home in South Park — also a fixer-upper.

“I thought before we bought our first house, we would probably end up renting,” he said. “So, it really was just by chance that we ended up buying. But looking back, I was convinced renting [was] my only option. But I think my perspective has changed.

“I’ve seen some rental rates here in Morgantown, and they can be pretty pricey. And my mortgage is nowhere near most of them.”

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