House hunters sure are an enigma.
While most Americans in the market for a new place say they want the benefits of city living—public transportation, shorter commutes, nearby restaurants and shops—what they end up searching for is a different story.
According to data from real estate website Trulia, when house hunters scour the Internet for potential properties, much of the focus shifts from city-center hubs to the allure of more space and lower prices in the suburbs.
"More online house hunters are looking toward the suburbs and smaller cities that toward big, dense cities," said Jed Kolko, Trulia's chief economist, in a statement. "Even though people say they want urban amenities…when they start searching for a new home, they're drawn to more space at a lower price rather than the benefits of big-city living."
Even without the steep discounts some suburbs offer, many house hunters are still focusing their searches in lower-density metro areas. Take, for instance, Los Angeles. Twice as many searches are recorded from cramped Los Angeles to suburban Ventura County than the other way around, according to Trulia, even though homes in those markets are similarly priced and the housing bust was similarly severe.
That's not entirely unexpected, Kolko points out, especially given the many government policies that encourage more development in lower-density areas. Just look at the investment in interstate highway systems and strict regulations on urban development, which many times makes living in the 'burbs a financial no-brainer.
Those making long-distance moves have slightly different priorities. Unlike house hunters moving within a 100-mile radius, long-distance searchers are much more likely to favor homes in markets that suffered bigger price drops in the bust than those in more resilient markets.
The problem is many of those areas still struggle with lagging local economies and job markets.
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"People gravitate toward great deals when they search far from home, but finding a job in those markets might be a challenge," Kolko said. "A cheap house in no bargain if you can't find a job that lets you pay the mortgage."
For the time being, Kolko says Americans still have their eye on the suburbs when it comes to homeownership, primarily because they can get more house and space for their money. However, if other factors such as rising gas prices start figuring more into the financial equation, house hunters' interest might drift closer to city centers.
Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter.