Elmira, N.Y.: unlikely darling of the housing market

Elmira, N.Y., escaped the housing market turmoil that spread throughout the rest of the US during the recession. How'd they do it?

Except for Mark Twain, who summered there for decades, Elmira, N.Y., is not home to big celebrities. But it has become a kind of rock star of the housing market.

What’s so special about Elmira, N.Y.?

As far as we know, the small city in upstate New York is not the subject of songs, home to living celebrities, or the unique producer of some great culinary fare. It’s a one-area-code city of approximately 30,000 people where Mark Twain summered for decades.

Oh, and it’s also something of a housing market rock star.

The average sales price of an existing Elmira home ­– $90,800 ­­– climbed nearly 18 percent in the first quarter of this year over the same period a year ago.

This is no small accomplishment. Only nine metro areas of 152 tracked by the National Association of Realtors had stronger growth, according to an NAR report released Tuesday. And all of those were driven by the recovery of home prices that had fallen dramatically during the recession.

Take San Francisco. In 2007, the median home price was $804,800. By 2009, it was only $493,300. Sure, growth in 2010 seems dramatic – prices rose 29 percent to $518,200 ­– but only because of how far real estate values had fallen.

Elmira, by contrast, has housing prices that were higher in 2009 than before the recession in 2007.

While some might call this spectacular, Mike Hamilton, president of the Elmira-Corning Board of Realtors has another word for it: “steady.”

The steadiness of the housing market is due to the stability of the area’s economic base, says Mr. Hamilton.

“It’s not the type of community based solely on one company and as that company goes, so goes the economy,” he says. Corning, which makes flat-screen TVs, among other products, and area hospitals are reliable employers. There are lakes nearby, and therefore a bit of tourism, and Elmira’s not too far from Syracuse, Buffalo, and Albany.

Elmira's uptick in home prices hasn't been smooth. There were price dips in 2002, 2005, and a small one in 2009, “but in more quarters than not, Elmira’s performed stronger than the US as a whole,” says Walt Molony, a spokesman for the NAR, which has been collecting data on the city since 2000.

“We may not have seen the big highs of other markets," says Hamilton. "But we don’t experience the real lows either.”

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