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Published July 04 2012

Young F-M homebuyers bucking national trend (with video)

FARGO – After living in 10 different apartments over eight years, Amanda McInnes was ready to settle down.

But buying a house? The 26-year-old Hillsboro native wasn’t sure she was ready for that much settling.

She was only just getting back to Fargo after living in the Twin Cities. She loved her new job here designing custom closets, but she’d barely started. When her father suggested she think about buying a house, she dismissed the idea.

“I said, ‘That’s silly, I’m not going to do that,’ ” McInnes said.

As she thought about it and ran the numbers, though, she realized she could pay about as much for a mortgage as she’d been paying in rent. In April, she came to a decision: “Instead of throwing money away, why not just buy?”

It was a scary step at first. With the economy still flagging and job prospects uncertain nationwide, the home ownership outlook for many young people nationwide has been bleak.

That doesn’t mean they’re not doing it – particularly locally, where the economy is stronger and prices are friendly for first-time buyers.

“We’re seeing young people look for homes just like we’ve always seen young people look for homes,” said Barb Grande, the managing broker for residential properties at Coldwell Banker in Fargo. “They are interested in home ownership. They really are.”

To get a handle on what young buyers are looking for and how they’re making it work, The Forum spoke with 20-something homeowners in the area. Here’s what we found:

Cheaper than renting

For McInnes, who found her home in May after looking at a few dozen around town, the math was simple: She had been paying $750 a month to rent her last apartment in Fargo, but could pay between $650 and $700 a month for a mortgage on her home.

“It kind of came as a surprise,” she said.

She paid $110,000 for the two-bedroom, two-bath home in south Fargo’s Hawthorne neighborhood. Her family helped her secure the credit to buy, but she’s making the payments.

And as the consummate decorator and tinkerer, she loved the idea of making a place her own. But she also didn’t want a fixer-upper. Aside from a quirky basement bathroom in which the toilet is perched on nothing in particular, the home, built in 1916, fit the bill.

The prospect of buying scared her at first, she said. She didn’t know much about things like maintenance or homeowners insurance. But she figured she’d work it out sooner or later.

“Lots of people my age own homes,” she said. “If they get it, I can get it.”

A hometown discount

When Michelle Barstad, 26, and her husband, Brad, 28, got married in February 2011, their goal was to own their own home by this summer.

They were in an apartment, but “we were running out of room and we wanted more privacy,” said Michelle, who works in the U.S. Bank Service Center in Fargo. Brad works for Food Services of America in Fargo.

After searching for about eight months, they settled on a townhome in West Fargo. With three bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms, it was affordable – they paid $123,000 – but left room to grow if they start a family.

They’d been paying $615 in rent. Now, they pay about $950 a month.

They financed the mortgage via a Federal Housing Administration loan, a program that makes it easier for lower-income and first-time buyers to buy homes through lower down payments and other accommodations.

The Barstads were a little worried about the commitment at first, but ultimately decided to move forward.

“We decided you can’t worry about the what-ifs,” Michelle said.

In love with a house

Andy Walker, 26, was used to having houses on the brain. He’s a system’s administrator for FBS Data Systems, which houses real estate data.

He and his wife, Emily, 24, were looking on and off for a few years, so they had plenty of time to think about what they wanted. In the end, the process was smooth: They looked at just four or five homes, and bought one built after the first model home they saw.

“We pretty much fell in love with it,” Andy said.

It was a brand-new construction in a south Fargo. They were paying about $900 a month to rent before moving in, and now pay about $1,300 on the mortgage for the $200,000 home.

So far, they say, the transition has been painless.

“I don’t think it’s any harder than renting an apartment,” Emily said.

Though Andy added: “When things start breaking down, maybe it’ll be a little different.”

Keeping a promise

Alyson Olthoff, a 29-year-old single mother, and her daughter Emma, 5, had lived in apartments since Emma was born.

When Emma was 3, Alyson promised her a backyard by the time she got to kindergarten.

Last year, Emma reminded her it was almost time to make good. So they moved in with Alyson’s parents to save up for a down payment.

Last month, they closed on a twinhome in south Moorhead for $142,000 financed through a traditional mortgage.

Alyson, a social worker, pays less than $900 a month on the mortgage.

Their last apartment together was a one-bedroom. The extra breathing room, Alyson said, is welcome.

“For her to have her own room, is a really big deal,” she said of her daughter. “She’s never really had her own space. So we painted it exactly the way she wanted it to be. I figured, why not? It’s her first bedroom.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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