In recent years Idaho Falls and surrounding towns have been named some of the best — and cheapest — places to live in the state, and even the country.
Various publications have included Bonneville County municipalities on their lists based on cost of living, available amenities, crime rates and other factors.
That attention is reflected in recent housing statistics.
In 2016, 2,022 homes sold in Bonneville County for a median price of $181,113, according to the Snake River Regional Multiple Listing Service. That’s about 1,000 more homes sold than in 2011. It’s even more than pre-recession 2006, when 1,696 homes sold for a median price of $144,900.
Those numbers may reflect people realizing how attractive Bonneville County is, especially compared to more expensive places, Idaho Falls-based real estate agent Mike Hicks said.
“When they compare us to the big city, what they’re comparing is the amenities, services and health care. So they combine all those factors, plus affordability, and you compare us to Boise, Salt Lake and those areas, and we look cheap,” he said.
Despite harsh winter weather likely slowing market availability and sales through January and February, numbers have rebounded in March.
There isn’t a clear reason for last year’s strong numbers, though job availability may have played a role.
As of February, eastern Idaho’s unemployment rate was 3 percent, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. That’s lower than southeast Idaho’s unemployment rate of 3.5 percent and the statewide average of 3.6 percent.
“Out at the site in particular there’s been a lot of hiring,” Hicks said.
Idaho National Laboratory hired more than 460 people in 2016, and hiring is expected to continue in the future.
Even growth at more conventional organizations can make a difference, Hicks said. Idaho Falls employment figures have steadily risen to more than 63,000 people this year since a post-recession floor in 2010 of fewer than 57,500 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I can use my business as an example. Two and a half years ago I had one assistant; today I’ve got 6. There’s that quiet, steady job creation. There haven’t been a ton of big employers moving in; it’s just everything here expanding,” he said.
Retirees seeking to leave town also may find it more expensive than anticipated.
“People used to leave here when they got to a certain age, so there’s this exodus. And now costs are so much higher in other locations. They say they’re going to leave; they check it out and they decide to stay,” Hicks said.
The same goes for Gem State newcomers.
“I think it’s an affordability issue. I’ve had three clients recently who’ve said I’m moving to Idaho Falls or Boise. We used to always lose that, but the last three have all ended up coming here,” Hicks said.
Low home interest rates also could have contributed to strong numbers last year; 30-year fixed-rate home loans averaged 3.65 percent in 2016, according to the Associated Press, good for the lowest average rate since 1971.
National 30-year fixed interest rates are higher in 2017, though they have dropped for three consecutive weeks to 4.1 percent. Idaho sits below the average this week at 3.9 percent, according to Bankrate.
“We have been in a raising rate environment since the election but it’s calmed down a little bit in the last month or so,” Idaho Central Credit Union mortgage loan office Steph Hay said. “There’s great programs for homebuyers who are needing a little down payment. There’s good credit and assistance programs.”
Home sales through February have been underwhelming compared to last year, however, Hicks said. Closed sales are down 8 percent compared to 2016, whileaverage home prices have risen a little to $185,000.
The weather likely played a large role in low sales, Hicks said.
Idaho Falls received about 58 inches of snow from October to March, according to National Weather Service measurements. That makes it the second snowiest winter recorded in that span in Idaho Falls since 1953.
Many roads, neighborhoods and subdivisions weren’t easily accessible during snowy stretches, which made home viewing difficult.
“Boy we had a winter,” Hicks said. “We just didn’t have as many folks out because of the weather conditions.”
There was also a market shortage, possibly due in part to the weather.
Hicks’ realty group had 260 Bonneville County homes on the market at the end of February. Last year, it had 321 homes on the market during the same span.
In the $100,000 to $125,000 price range — key for first-time buyers with modest incomes — the group had 19 homes on the market at the end of February, compared to 42 last year. In the $150,000 to $175,000 range there were 17 homes at the end of February, compared to 34 homes last year.
“We’re actually very short, especially at certain price ranges,” Hicks said. “In real estate terms that’s called a severe shortage.”
Pent-up demand meant homes spent fewer days on market, however. Through February, the average home was on the market for 64 days, compared to last year’s average of 89 days, Hicks said.
In March, the number of homes on the market also rebounded. Hicks’ group had 247 homes on the market, compared to 218 last year. Of the 247 homes on the market, 100 had pending sales, which is a “pretty high percentage.”
Average days on market for homes in March was just eight.
“A house comes on the market, someone sees it, and it’s ‘the’ house. They make their offer because they’ve been looking, and there’s 10 other people who’ve been looking in that price range who haven’t found a home,” Hicks said.
People typically search for homes newer than 20 years old that don’t require an abundance of maintenance, or they search for older, historic homes with character, Hicks said.
And when those markets don’t satisfy, there’s custom homebuilding and new subdivisions.
The Iona corridor has seen building activity lately that can be observed in crowded Bonneville Joint School District 93 classrooms. That growth is expected to continue.
South of Idaho Falls, the Park Place and Yorkside Division subdivisions have seen recent expansion, as have the Southpoint and Rockwell subdivisions.
“New construction is the lone ranger that rides to the rescue to relieve that pressure,” Hicks said.
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.