Wildland firefighter Jonathan Wegener dreamed about homeownership for about four years before recently purchasing his first home in north Animas City.
For a while he hunted for a house in Mancos and Cortez, and at one point, came close to giving up before purchasing a $380,000 home in Durango.
He was hesitant about purchasing a house until he participated in the homebuyer education offered by HomesFund, a Durango-based nonprofit, he said.
“I finally felt educated enough to take the leap,” he said.
He also received a second-mortgage through HomesFund that allowed him to purchase the house, he said.
Wegener said he considers himself lucky to have found a house in his price range in Durango and plans to stay in Durango to advance in his career.
As home prices have continued to rise, it has become tougher and tougher for first-time buyers to purchase homes, especially in Durango.
Average wages in La Plata County kept pace with home prices fairly well until 2017, when home prices really started to climb out of reach, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
For example, in February 2016, a homeowner would need to earn about $61,000 annually to qualify to buy a $397,585 home, which was the average home price at the time across most of La Plata County, according to data compiled by the alliance. The annual income required was calculated based on buyers putting 20 percent down on a home and paying 28 percent of their income toward their mortgage.
In September 2018, homeowners needed to earn $86,500 annually to buy a house, assuming the same parameters, because the average home price had risen to $485,870, Zalneraitis said. The median annual income in La Plata County is about $61,910 annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For some, high home prices mean Durango employees must live in Aztec, Farmington, Cortez, Mancos or other outlying communities and commute to work, said Lisa Bloomquist Palmer, executive director of HomesFund.
“We need to realize the pros and cons of that,” she said. HomesFund is a nonprofit that offers mortgage assistance and homebuyer education.
As more homebuyers choose to commute, they spend more time on the road, putting pressure on infrastructure. Commuters also tend to be less involved in the community, she said.
Many of those long-distance commuters are working in law enforcement, the service industry, government and nonprofits, she said.
“All of those people have historically been able to live in Durango, and we’re losing that,” she said.
However, on a positive note, the community can take a regional approach to meeting the demand for housing as a result of the trend, she said.
As part of encouraging first-time homeownership, from Jan. 1, 2017, until Sept. 30, 2018, HomesFund approved 60 mortgage-assistance loans, which is the equivalent of $1.2 million, across its five-county region, Bloomquist Palmer said. The nonprofit approved 34 of those loans to homebuyers in La Plata County.
The second mortgages do not require monthly payments. Participants in the nonprofit’s most popular loan program pay the nonprofit back when they sell or refinance their home, she said.
Residents must qualify for a second mortgage based on their income and participate in homebuyer education, among other requirements.
As home prices have risen, HomesFund has started approving more loans to Montezuma County buyers and buyers in other more affordable counties, she said.
Mary Rigby, an owner of ReMax Pinnacle in Durango, said she has also observed the effects of high prices, compounded by rising interest rates, on first-time homebuyers.
Unless the buyers are interested in condos in Durango, many of them are searching for homes in rural areas of La Plata County or in Bayfield, she said.
It also is taking longer for first-time buyers to find a home, and she is working with fewer of them than she did several years ago, she said. Rigby worked with five first-time homebuyers this year, she said.
One of the most important things for prospective buyers to realize is they may have to compromise on size, location or other factors in order to purchase their first home, she said.
“They have to be willing to give up some things that they might want,” she said.
Buyers also need to limit the amount of debt they take on if they are planning to buy a home, and that can mean delaying the purchase of a car or other large-ticket items like furniture, she said.
For some young buyers, existing college debt can make it tough to buy a home, Bloomquist Palmer said.
Despite the challenges, purchasing a home provides buyers with a way to stabilize their housing costs, as rents have continued to rise. It also provides an avenue to build wealth as a home appreciates in value, she said.
“It’s certainly not for everyone. ... For the people who want it and can handle the financial responsibility of owning their own home, it’s a good opportunity,” she said.