Cheap California: Where are homebuying ‘bargains’ in the state?

“Cheap California” looks at various slices of the state’s economy based on price.

Buzz: You can find California housing with pricing that requires a proportional size of income on par with what is needed by the typical new U.S. house hunter. But those “bargain” homes are located in sparsely populated parts of the state.

Source: My trusty spreadsheet reviewed the California Association of Realtors’ first-time homebuyer affordability index to find housing bargains in 51 counties for 2022’s fourth quarter. The Realtors’ benchmark looks at the monetary burden of buying using more generous financing math than other indexes.

Topline: The best bargains as measured by this affordability yardstick are for the folks in Northern California counties of Lassen (where 72% can afford to buy) and Shasta (57%) and mid-state Kings County (58%). The trio had affordability levels at or above the nation’s 57% rate.

And where were the priciest counties, on this scale? Mono (18% affordable), Santa Cruz (21%), and Santa Barbara (24%).

Bottom line: Affordability tumbled last year as stubbornly high prices combined with rising mortgage rates. As a result, few house hunters could qualify for a home loan and sales activity plunged in 2022’s second half.

Ponder California’s “affordability” at 34% for a first-timer in the fourth quarter. That was down from an average 38% in 2022’s first nine months as the Federal Reserve ended its cheap money policies as upped interest rates. Affordability statewide averaged 45% in mid-pandemic 2020-21 and 49% in 2015-19, before the coronavirus twisted the economy.

Yes, homes are more affordable nationally, but the downward slope is similar. The year-end 57% U.S. affordability rate compares to 61% during the previous nine months, 69% in 2020-21 and 72% in 2015-19.

The numbers

When looking only at the state’s 12 most-populous counties, you also see “bargains” are concentrated in inland California. Here’s how the dozen big housing markets ranked in order of affordability …

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San Bernardino: 51% of first-time shoppers could afford a local home in the fourth quarter vs. an average 55% in last year’s first nine months. That’s also below the 64% average of 2020-21 and 69% in 2015-19.

Fresno: 50% fourth quarter vs. 52% previous nine months, 62% in 2020-21, 65% in 2015-19.

Kern: 49% fourth quarter vs. 54% previous nine months, 64% in 2020-21 and 70% in 2015-19.

Sacramento: 49% fourth quarter vs. 51% previous nine months, 59% in 2020-21 and 63% in 2015-19.

Contra Costa: 44% fourth quarter vs. 46% previous nine months, 51% in 2020-21 and 55% in 2015-19.

Riverside: 43% fourth quarter vs. 46% previous nine months, 55% in 2020-21 and 59% in 2015-19.

San Diego: 31% fourth quarter vs. 34% previous nine months, 44% in 2020-21 and 47% in 2015-19.

Alameda: 30%  fourth quarter vs. 30% previous nine months, 38% in 2020-21 and 41% in 2015-19.

Los Angeles: 28% fourth quarter vs. 34% previous nine months, 41% in 2020-21 and 46% in 2015-19.

Santa Clara: 28% fourth quarter vs. 27% previous nine months, 34% in 2020-21 and 37% in 2015-19.

San Francisco: 27% fourth quarter vs. 27% previous nine months, 28% in 2020-21 and 25% in 2015-19.

Orange: 24% fourth quarter vs. 26% previous nine months, 37% in 2020-21 and 42% in 2015-19.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at

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