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Not long ago, Cara was sharing a $3,200 rental payment with roommates. Today, she makes a $770 monthly mortgage payment to own a home that’s about the same size. What happened?

She moved, of course. From Washington D.C. to Buffalo, N.Y.

Recently, Credit.com shared a list of America’s least expensive cities, based on the percentage of residents considered “housing poor” (consumers who spend more than 30% of their income on housing). Today, we start a series of stories from people who live in some of these places. Are homes really that much cheaper in Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Raleigh? Do “second-tier” cities really represent a new Promised Land in America, where families can escape the oppression of outsized mortgage payments? Or is this a mirage, created, in part, because job opportunities are limited in these places?

All housing markets are local. Even narrowing data down to the ZIP code doesn’t provide enough detail. An inexpensive “for sale” price might hide the cost of bad schools nearby or poor police protection. We can’t offer any definitive conclusions with this series. But hopefully these anecdotes will offer a bit of insight and could invite you to consider new alternatives.

After all, a $770-per-month mortgage payment is sure to get your attention.

Life in Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls By the Numbers

  • Affordable Cities Ranking: 10th
  • Housing Poor Residents: 30.6%
  • Median Home Sales Price: $129,900
  • Median Household Income: $50,074

Cara, who asked that her identity be withheld because of her profession, moved to D.C. from Buffalo in 2006 after college, seeking opportunity. She found it quickly.

“The job market in Buffalo was not promising for young grads at that time. I took the opportunity to get some experience to see what would happen,” she said. She found a job in finance within about a week.

Finding affordable housing was another problem, however.

First, she tried affordable Germantown, a far-flung D.C. suburb that’s beyond D.C.’s farthest metro subway station. That failed miserably.

“It was a very long commute and was taxing on any form of a social life. After 8 months, I moved to Arlington,” she said. She sub-letted a 9×11 room for about $700 a month; with two roommates, they together paid $3,200 rent on the three-bedroom house.

She hung on for a while, aware the whole time how much cheaper life could be if she moved home. But once she got a few years’ big-city job experience under her belt, Cara bit the bullet, grabbed her warmest winter coat, and migrated north.

By the time she reached her 30s, she was a homeowner, buying a 3-bedroom house with basically the same payment she had on her 9×11 bedroom.

“The home values here are just different in Buffalo,” she said.

She also bought herself peace of mind.

“I feel like I can have a life, pay off my student debt, take a vacation for work-life balance, and still have some to put away for retirement,” she said. “I am not worrying if I can buy meat at the grocery store or have enough gas to get to work. I worried about that in D.C. Put me into credit card debt. Young and stupid! I made the best choice coming back.”

She also changed professions, and now works in research, earning about double what she made when she was in D.C.

In retrospect, it was an easy call for Cara, and helped her move smoothly into the next phase of life.

“I work with the D.C. area a lot and I still think I would be renting in the same profession,” she said.

But what about her social life? Isn’t life in a big city more exciting than life in Buffalo?

“My social life is better off here than in D.C.,” Cara says. “My opinion might be skewed, but moving by myself to a large city was incredibly tough. Roommates are found on Craigslist … that took months … and the area being so transient, it was hard to form what I would consider meaningful relationships. The most I ever felt comfortable was being with people who had also moved from Buffalo to D.C. When it came down to it, we missed the people from home.”

Of course, no place is Shangri-La. Like many cities in the top 10 list, the secret is out on Buffalo. Homes in Buffalo now frequently sell above their asking price, and a Buffalo News story about bidding wars led Marketwatch to say the market was beginning to resemble San Francisco. Given the numbers above, that seems a bit of a stretch. But moving home offers some benefits that are hard to put a price on.

“I get to see my family. My dad passed recently and I am glad I was here,” Cara said.

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