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These are the least difficult areas in U.S. to buy a home: NBC News Home Buyer Index

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There are areas in the U.S. that are considered to be the least difficult places to buy a home, according to a new real estate indicator.

When the counties are sorted by index rank, Iroquois County, Illinois is the least difficult market to buy a home, according to the NBC News Home Buyer Index. 

The following counties ranked as the least difficult areas when sorted by the four contributing factors:

  1. Cost: Iroquois County, Illinois is the most cost-effective or affordable housing market among measured counties in the U.S.
  2. Competition: Somervell County, Texas is the least competitive housing market of the counties measured in the U.S.
  3. Scarcity: Imperial County, California is the least scarce housing market among measured areas.
  4. Economic Instability: Macon County, Tennessee has the most stable local economy among measured areas.

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The index evaluates cost, competition, scarcity and economic instability.

Cost, the most heavily weighted element, measures how much a home costs relative to household incomes and inflation, as well as expenses like insurance costs, according to NBC News.

Competition looks into the level of demand in an area or how many buyers are on the market for a home.

Scarcity refers to an area’s supply of listed homes for sale and how many more are expected to enter the market in the coming month.

And finally, economic instability considers an area’s market volatility, unemployment levels and interest rates.

The NBC News Home Buyer Index was developed by NBC News alongside housing experts, such as a real estate industry analyst and a bank economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

On a scale from zero to 100, the index score represents the level of difficulty to buy a home in a U.S. county: The greater the value, the harder it is to buy a home in that area, according to NBC.

But, to compare counties with one another, it is important to consider the index rank as “ranks provide context to the scores,” said Joe Murphy, a data editor at NBC News who co-created the index.

A low index rank — or closer to the value of 1,310, the number of counties measured in this month’s report — suggests the county has better market conditions for potential buyers. In other words, a county with an index rank of number one “is the worst,” Murphy said.

For most Americans, buying — and even maintaining — a home in the U.S. remains costly.

The median sales price of houses sold in the U.S. was $420,800 in the first quarter of 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau via the Federal Reserve.

On top of the high cost, the 30-year fixed rate mortgage in the U.S. is still close to 7%. Borrowing costs are unlikely to significantly change as the Fed held rates steady at its June meeting.

However, if you plan or aspire to own a home, there are ways to prepare, experts say.

Here are three things to do

If you want to be a homeowner, but remain on the sidelines, “getting financially prepared is one of the most important things people can do” before buying a home, said Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com.

“Spend more time getting your finances in really good shape,” said Jacob Channel, a senior economist at LendingTree. “It’s very important, especially when you’re making a six-figure purchase, to really take your time.”

Here are three things to consider:

1. Boost your credit score: Take a moment to pay down debt and increase your credit score, said Channel.

Your credit score helps measure how creditworthy you are as a borrower, said Hale. You could potentially qualify for a home purchase with a minimum credit score of 500, depending on the lender, according to Experian. But having a higher score can help you achieve better terms on the mortgage, said Hale.

“Doing what you can to improve your credit score will raise your odds of getting a lower mortgage rate,” Hale said.

2. Seek pre-approval from lenders: “It’s worth it to start the process earlier rather than later so that there aren’t as many surprises,” said Hale, especially for buyers who’ve never bought a home before.

Rate lock policies will depend on the lender. In some cases, a lender will let you lock in a mortgage rate after they pre-approve you, Channel said.

But generally, a pre-approval is not enough to guarantee an interest rate, said Hale, “because you cannot lock in a mortgage rate until you have a full mortgage application.”

“And you can’t do a full mortgage application until you have a specific property that you want to buy,” she said.

Once a buyer makes an offer on a property and officially kicks off the application process, it’s possible the lender can lock in a mortgage rate if you ask, said Hale. Depending on the lender, the mortgage rate will be locked in for a period spanning from 30 to 60 days, which is “enough time for the closing process to happen,” said Hale.

Ask your lender about what the rate-lock period is and ask what stage in the process the mortgage rate gets locked, said Hale. 

3. Intentionally budget and save: “The thing people should be doing is budgeting and saving,” said Channel. The more time you give yourself to saving money for expenses like the down payment and closing costs, he said, “the better off you’ll likely be.”

When someone becomes a homeowner, “they’re going to have a higher monthly payment than what they had before,” said Hale. Therefore, while you prepare for homeownership, consider setting aside an extra payment, she suggested.

It would help build up savings for a down payment or an emergency fund, and “give an idea of how comfortable that housing payment” truly is, said Hale.

“It’s better to be a renter who can afford your rental unit than it is to be a homeowner who can’t afford your house,” Channel said.

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