Let’s take a moment to think what makes a house valuable. Is it “location-location-location,” finishes and amenities, or is it size? If your mind is set on a certain city or area, location rules supreme, but where’s the sense in living there, even in a top-of-the-line home, if you barely have room to get out of bed? That is, if you can even fit a bed inside. Don’t believe the hype – size does matter!
Say your mortgage is somewhere around $300,000 – pretty average for the US. Would you rather live in a 165 sq. ft. Manhattan “studio” (where you get to choose between fitting in a bed or a desk), or in a 4,478 sq. ft. Memphis mansion (where you can probably dedicate an entire room to band practice)?
The differences between major American city real estate prices really are that great! You can argue about amenities, cultural vibe or average weather all day. Eventually, it all comes down to elbow room for you and your family.
We’ve looked at the US median home size – 1,700 square feet – and the US median listing price – $300,000 – to get an idea of what living space and prices look like around America. Once you factor in the average asking prices for each city, the numbers might shock you. Have a look:
- For $300,000 you won’t be able to afford an average-sized home in any of the first 20 cities in our analysis. Start with Dallas, if you need at least average elbow room.
- You could buy 1,700 square foot homes in all of New York City’s outer boroughs (plus one in Los Angeles) for the price of one home of equal size in Manhattan.
- You could buy 1,700 square foot homes in 5 major cities in neighboring states, for the price of one home of equal size in San Francisco (and still have cash for a sports car left over)
- You can buy 4 median sized houses in Detroit for $300,000. Or just one really huge, 7,000 sq. ft. mansion.
- You can buy two median sized homes and a 1,000 sq. ft. condo in Memphis for $300,000.
In the chart below, hover over the squares to see exactly how many square feet you get for $300,000. The areas dedicated to each city are proportional, so you get an at-a-glance perspective on the size differences.
Numbers talk: how does square footage reflect value?
Square footage price is a universally accepted metric which works very well if you want to get your bearings and have a general idea about how much house you can get for your money in a specific city or area of interest. That being said, we don’t claim it’s a perfect metric: location, property type, amenities and other factors play a significant role as well. However, it’s the best way to visualize precisely how much raw usable space you get for your money, and how large the differences are across different cities in the US.
The bottom right corner, the one that you can barely see – that’s what you can buy in Manhattan for $300,000. The top left corner represents what that money will buy you in Detroit. In cold, hard numbers – you can get 42 times more space in Detroit for the same money as you can in Manhattan.
Of course, the numbers don’t take into account the fact that Manhattan is the world capital of culture, fashion and finance, while Detroit is the first major bankrupt city in the US.
Basically, numbers talk especially if you’re interested in real estate in a pretty pragmatic way. If you think of your home as just the access point to the amenities and life of the city itself, then square footage doesn’t really tell you anything extra.
Reality check: what the numbers don’t say
Since our data comes from median prices, available properties don’t always match up with the statistics. In other words, in Manhattan you’re getting exactly 167 square feet of space for $300,000, with the caveat that that space will most likely be part of a larger apartment.
The same holds true for properties on the larger side of the spectrum – it’s difficult to find a 7,000 sq. ft. property in Detroit that isn’t obviously a luxury property, with prices far higher than the median.
In terms of living space size, zoning and urban planning laws come into effect. For example, New York still has a legal minimum of 400 square feet in its building code. The exception is Carmel Palace, Manhattan’s first (and thus far, only) micro-apartment building, where units are as small as 265 sq. ft.
The only place which we could find for sale in Manhattan for under $300,000 that isn’t a co-op, is a storage box listed as an apartment. No comment on whether that’s an elaborate joke or not.
San Francisco, on the other hand, has a legal minimum of 220 square feet, and according to the data, $300,000 would barely be enough to buy that much space.
We did a little mixing and matching, pairing cities from above and from below the line where you can get a median house for $300k. The results are a good reflection of the real-life implications of the numbers.
New York City – four major price tiers
To paraphrase a classic line, if you can make it in Manhattan, you can make it anywhere. Fortunately, there are other spots in New York City where buying a decent home is more within reach, namely Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx. In fact, Manhattan and these three NYC boroughs reflect the whole scale of prices throughout the 50 cities we’ve looked at.
Brooklyn is the third most expensive area in the US to go shopping for homes, neatly slotting in between San Francisco and Boston. Prices per square foot in Brooklyn are roughly one third of those in Manhattan, at $669 per sq. ft.
Most importantly, $300,000 buys you 448 square feet of space in Brooklyn, which is a little more comfortable than a micro-condo.
The median price per square foot in Queens – $454 – is less than a quarter of Manhattan’s $1,821. The Bronx is the most affordable New York borough, at $236 per sq. ft. That means you get to live in The Big Apple and get more bang for your buck in terms of living space than in L.A., Seattle or Miami.
Miami vs. Las Vegas – modern minimalism versus vast haciendas
Two cities well known for being very entertaining. Both warm, both diverse and both iconic. And yet, in terms of real estate, the similarities stop there.
According to the data we have collected, $300,000 would barely buy you 1,000 square feet of space in Miami.
On the other hand, that same price could fetch you as much as 2,273 square feet in Las Vegas.
The listings available on Point2 Homes in both of these cities tend to confirm this.
Chicago vs. Detroit – chic and charming versus decadent and spacious
Virtually a stone’s throw away from each other, and yet these two cities’ real estate markets are worlds apart.
The Detroit market, although slowly on the mend, is notoriously low priced. So low, in fact, that the price per square foot in Detroit is the lowest in our analysis.
On the other hand, Chicago sits comfortably in the top half of the cities we looked at, with prices comparable to Miami and Austin.
Dallas vs. Houston – big and balanced
Cities in Texas are close rivals in terms of price per square foot. Austin is the most expensive, whereas Dallas and Houston are just two rankings apart from each other.
We were curious to find out whether the differences between Dallas and Houston listings are obvious, but as we rather expected, the examples we found were quite similar.
Atlanta vs. Columbus – college city stand-off
Atlanta is pretty much in the middle of the pack in terms of price per square foot (in fact, it’s only one notch above Dallas).
Columbus is the largest city in Ohio, but the real estate market is much lower priced than that in Atlanta. However, the price per square foot is precisely $100, exactly twice as much as Cleveland’s $50/sq.ft. – Ohio is the only state in which we found such clear-cut differences between major cities.
Which of these famous college towns offers home buyers more “bang for their buck”? Well, in terms of space, Columbus is the clear winner. But the Southern charm that Atlanta offers is not easy to pass by either.