First ring suburbs strive to increase appeal in today’s hot real estate market

Housing market fluctuations have been big news over the past couple of years. Drastic economic sweeps have turned buyer’s markets to seller’s markets in the blink of an eye. Many Greater Cincinnati residents in a position to move house have found themselves playing a game of jump rope in a very active market. More potential buyers, sellers and renters have jumped in – double dutching their way towards prospective gains in a frenzy of selling off and snatching up available properties.

Whether looking to downsize as empty nesters or searching for that first apartment post college, there are always different factors to consider based on individual or family’s needs. Thankfully, Cincinnati and its surrounding communities offer a wide variety of options. Average home pricing is reasonable in comparison to other similar-sized Midwestern cities – as is overall cost of living. A strong school system, ample square footage, walkability or a thriving social scene may be the guiding factor in any given search – and multiple potentials present themselves from urban core to outer ring.

In a general sense, for both renters and buyers, Cincinnati places very well within the national scope. A market analysis from Wallethub points to Cincinnati as one of the best cities for renters nationally; and Forbes recently ranked Cincinnati as one of the three hottest real estate markets in Ohio (based on median sale and list price, days on market and sales-to-list price ratio).

But inventory has been low due to overwhelming demand. According to Forbes, time on the market in Cincinnati hovered around 3-5 days from 2020-2021, with sellers reaping the benefits of high offers and quick sales.

In fact, the strong demand for housing is resituating Cincinnati as a city for renters. According to a Roofstock article on stats and trends for 2022, current figures indicate that nearly 60% of Cincinnati households rent rather than own.

An influx of outside buyers has further tightened the market. Looking for a cozy, midsized city to call home, savvy out of state investors are putting a squeeze on options for locals. A thriving job market, attractive amenities and affordability have drawn buyers from high-cost coastal areas, spotlighting Cincinnati as a national target for relocation. Population is on the increase as about 25% of recent homebuyers in Cincinnati are from out of state, according to WCPO.

For all these reasons, local buyers trying to improve their situations have had to consider options they might not under different circumstances.

“Look at Hyde Park. Young professionals want to live in Hyde Park. But there are people who don't have mortgages, or who want to invest who see that demand,” says Emily Godin, a realtor with ERA. She says potential first-time buyers end up renting in their desired area because they don’t see a path to homeownership there. “What's interesting is that if those people saved up a little bit and went to somewhere like Pleasant Ridge that's super close to Hyde Park – great area, similar vibe – they could buy. But location, for so many people, it's a thing.”

Fortunately, in some situations the old catch phrase “location, location, location” has taken on a new meaning due to increased flexibility. It seems that the entire housing landscape has taken on a different view post pandemic, offering new possibilities reflective of recent societal shifts in addition to economic ones.

While there may be scant options in highly desired areas, more remote and hybrid employment and education options both locally and nationally have caused regional and commute considerations to become obsolete for some, creating an increased interest in vicinities that might otherwise be overlooked.

Areas can now be evaluated with modern filters applied. Perhaps a property on the bus line with a grocery store and other handy resources within walking distance appeals to those looking to ditch driving altogether. Maybe living further out creates better proximity to friends and loved ones in neighboring cities. Older residents have been enticed toward new senior living developments where generational camaraderie and ease of services are at the ready.

New opportunities for accommodation have presented themselves in the surrounding localities. Areas like Madisonville and St. Bernard have worked to develop appealing downtown districts. Lincoln Heights has funneled efforts into beautification, strengthening services and creating more housing options for families looking to return to their old stomping grounds.  Other communities have sought to entice buyers with attractive moneysaving environmental perks like solar powered homes.

New single-family homes on Jackson St. in Lincoln Heights. Photo Joe Simon.These efforts aside, it’s an ongoing challenge to get the housing stock in some of Cincinnati’s more longstanding communities up to par to meet the current demand.

“The reality is, in many of our first ring suburbs, we have the challenge of aging housing. A lot of housing in many of those places was built post World War II. And so, it was built sort of quickly to respond to the opportunities presented through the GI Bill and other things. A lot of it is just aged, and it's not historic. It was built a little differently, so it needs more investment,” says Kristen Baker, executive director of LISC of Greater Cincinnati.

LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) has established several investment companies to help bridge the gap between investors and projects in communities with lesser resources. Recently, LISC has been working with Hamilton County on housing strategies in Addyston and Deer Park, studying how these communities wish to grow and analyzing their opportunities and challenges to find viable solutions.

According to Deer Park’s website, the community plans to attract homebuyers and businesses by highlighting its differentiation in overall safety from its three most competitive business districts: Silverton, Pleasant Ridge, and Madisonville.  The site touts Deer Park as one of the safest cities in Ohio, and community leaders plan to build on that with more youth recreation opportunities and programming.

Deer Park also plans to “place emphasis on attracting young entrepreneurs and empty nesters to the business corridor through distinctive gathering spaces,” recognizing that “future Deer Park residents are likely to come from young, first-time homebuyers and downsizing seniors.”

This plan takes advantage of multiple attributes, also acknowledging that “the higher living cost in Kenwood and Blue Ash provide Deer Park the opportunity to become a destination for young professionals and empty nesters, both of whom are gravitating more towards walkable, urban environments for both home and work.”

“Places like Addyston or Deer Park – historically they've been a little more affordable. So they are attracting and presenting homeownership opportunities for folks that that might be challenged in other parts of the region to find housing that meets their income needs... But then, they also might not be as able to respond to the needs of their housing if they're on a bit more of a tight budget,” explains Baker.

Baker says that a lot of younger, first-time homebuyers are looking for something that’s worry-free as opposed to a house that needs a new roof within the first couple of years. She advises that communities looking to attract buyers should consider updating older housing rather than investing in new construction due to the expense. There is a need for housing now, and less expensive solutions with quick turn-around times should be at the forefront.

Advice for sellers. Resources for buyers.

Baker feels for potential first-time buyers and advises them to have their ducks in a row because the competition is fierce.

“It's hard to compete with someone who's an all cash buyer. Someone can come and pay $200,000 in cash for a property and someone else has to come in with a mortgage and needs an inspection. The things that financial institutions rightfully require – that's a difficulty,” acknowledges Baker. “It's just a really tough market in that regard. I think making sure that folks are attuned to their financial health – that their credit is good and that they have all the pieces in place – is really important when moving into homeownership.”

Godin notes that she has noticed that many younger buyers are more flexible in general, with an eye for investment potential. Working as a real estate agent over the past decade, Godin has observed that passive income and generational wealth are concepts that have caught on with younger generations. 20- and 30-somethings have a keen eye for investment potential, even if it means they aren’t getting their dream home in a first-time home purchase.

“I will say that with millennials I am seeing them be a little bit more savvy in the way they do things. They see that it benefits them to buy something and then keep it and rent it. Also, I think sometimes they are more willing to go into these areas that are in revitalization,” says Godin.

“I just had a couple I was working with last year, and they were buying their first house. Their plan was to find something they could definitely live in for a good period of time, pay it off, save more money, and eventually use that as a rental property instead of selling, and start that process. And I think that’s wise because I do think there is a strong need for rentals...particularly in certain places,” adds Godin.

She counsels that another wise strategy for young buyers without children, or with younger children, is to consider a smaller home as an affordable alternative to renting – until the time comes that school systems and square footage become more of a consideration.

“You just want to find something smaller. Build some equity. You can always move down the road,” says Godin. She adds, however, that she never advises anyone to settle for second best.

“If it’s their first house they don’t need someone who says, ‘This is what you get.’ And I love that challenge. I want that repeat business, of course, but I want them to be happy in their house and to want to stay there. I want it to be good,” emphasizes Godin.

As for sellers, Godin cautions that even though the market is hot, they should work hard and pay close attention to every detail in the process of getting organized. This will result in the best sale possible and ease the transition of moving. She acknowledges that it can be stressful, but says taking the time to prepare is essential.

“It's going to make things easier, not only during the sale and after, but it will bring you a better sale. Packing ahead of time, decluttering, staging – you don't always need to hire a company. There are so many little, simple things they can do that can be time consuming—but well worth the effort in the long run,” advises Godin.

Being ready to strike while the iron is hot makes sense in terms of rates as well, she adds. Keeping an eye on financial trends is essential. Taking advantage of lower rates can make a big difference as far as your housing options.

“Six months ago rates were much lower. When people are buying and they lock into these rates, they're usually locked in for, like, six months. People who have locked in rates that are getting ready to expire are now in a mad rush to find something – because they want that rate! And that makes sense. If you look at the difference in the rate, it could potentially get you a lot more house,” Godin says.

For those thinking about starting the path to homeownership but unsure where to start, Baker says there are several organizations that can help with getting on the right track.

“One is Working In Neighborhoods. They're a community development corporation located in Cincinnati, but they offer support countywide. They offer homeownership classes, financial counseling and homeownership counseling resources. Also, the Homeownership Center of Greater Cincinnati is another resource for potential homeowners to take classes and get financial counseling. The Brighton Center is in Newport, Kentucky, but they also serve Ohio. They are also a financial housing counseling entity, and they've been doing virtual homeownership classes,” says Baker.

In addition, Baker mentions GCRA (Greater Cincinnati Realtist Association), an association of black realtors striving for “Democracy in Housing” per the website. GRCA hosts a variety of programs and services that assist black community members in finding and acquiring equitable housing.

She advises that financial institutions and banks also offer similar resources to anyone looking for help navigating today’s complex and ever changing market.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.