How Much Does it Cost to Live The American Dream?

The answer depends on where you want to live. The American Dream of homeownership is no longer realistic for many Americans with middle class wages. Across the country, the affordability of single family homes varies widely. To buy an average home in Cleveland, one would need a salary of at least $22,400, while an average home in San Francisco demands a salary of at least $137,500.

Homeownership has long been seen as a natural step toward a secure future. But with wages in the U.S. relatively stagnant compared to house prices over the past four decades, homeownership is increasingly out of reach for many in the middle class. We wanted to get a better picture of the homeownership landscape in the U.S. to understand the dynamic between salary and home affordability. Is the middle class being priced out of the American Dream?

We studied average wages for 20 professions in 50 metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. to determine whether the average salary for each profession is high enough to purchase a single-family home. In essence, we tried to figure out which professions allow Americans to live a middle class lifestyle in Metropolitan areas throughout the country. We took average salaries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and compared them to realtor.org’s Qualifying Income Assessment, which is based on median sale prices for existing single-family homes and a 20% down payment. The average qualifying income in the U.S. in 2014 was $40,702. To use the interactive map above, select the profession you would like to view in the dropdown box on the right. The map displays a number of red and green dots above the metropolitan areas for which we have data. A green circle means that the selected profession offers a high-enough income to purchase a home in that area, while a red circle means that homeownership is not financially feasible. Pointing your cursor over a dot displays the average salary and qualifying income for the region.

We chose professions that are representative of the middle class; that is, professions where one can earn salaries between $40k and $80k. Those working in jobs on the lower end of the salary range, such as office clerks and retail salespersons, can only afford to buy a home in select markets like Cleveland, Saint Louis, or Memphis. We also included some professions with wages that are too low to qualify as middle class: bartenders, waiters, and childcare workers. People in these professions can only dream of buying a home, regardless of where they live.

If you’re a computer programmer, a web developer, or a writer, you can easily buy a single-family home in most major U.S. metropolitan areas.

Ironically though, the average programmer or web developer cannot afford to buy in areas with a large concentration of technology companies such as San Jose and San Diego.

A so-called middle class job no longer guarantees a middle class lifestyle throughout the U.S. A firefighter can afford to buy a home in Buffalo or Philadelphia, but would find himself out of luck in Boston or Washington. Middle class wages have less leverage in the high-demand markets of New York, Massachusetts, and Colorado, making homeownership challenging; but along the coast of California the situation is even worse. There, it takes more than a middle class wage to live a middle class lifestyle.

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