How to Best Invest in Real Estate in the Midwest

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The most surprising feature about housing markets in the Midwest is that home prices – in most of them – are still below the level where local incomes dictate they should be (Winzer, Forbes). If you’re a real estate investor, this means two things. Firstly, there are bargains still available in these markets. Secondly, demand for housing not been very strong, at least not yet.

Midwest Housing Market Overview

The lack of rebound in the Midwest housing market following 2008 is largely due to the specific types of local economic growth that prevailed before that (Winzer, Forbes). The housing recession came coupled with a lengthy, slow decline in manufacturing. The availability of an educated but low-cost labor force had encouraged the growth of big financial operations in Des Moines, Minneapolis, Omaha, Sioux Falls and Green Bay. However, manufacturing still has a large role in Fayetteville, Davenport, Peoria, Rockford, Gary, Fort Wayne, South Bend, Wichita, Milwaukee and Green Bay (Millsap, Forbes).

This makes these markets a bit riskier to invest in. The markets with a large finance sector are also risky because automation is responsible for an increasing amount of work. Despite structural problems, growth is now returning to many Midwest markets, as it did prior to COVID-19. Especially in areas that function as regional centers – Fayetteville and Peoria, for example – the expansion of jobs is due to an increase in healthcare and business services. Similarly, to the country, these services are becoming concentrated in large urban centers, creating opportunities for investors in rental housing.

An uncharacteristic feature housing investors contend with is many Midwest markets have agricultural roots, with manufacturing later added on top. Since land was readily and easily available during their growth, they tend to be spread out. This combination produces low home prices, but increased difficulty for investors to select a locality. After all, the saying “real estate is about location, location, location”, rings true in most cases.

Now that we’ve established some fundamental generalities, let’s get to the specifics and numbers.

Established Demand

Fort Wayne, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Springfield, Fayetteville, Gary and South Bend.

In these markets, it appears home prices increased relatively broadly in the past year, indicating good demand not just for single-family homes, but rentals as well. With prices still well below income levels and above average job growth, demand is likely to keep raising prices higher. Though the trend depicted below shows the housing market pre-COVID, that trend is pretty much identical today. The housing market didn’t really suffer the same volume of consequences as other markets, but the small parts that did are steadily recovering (Winzer, Forbes).

Source: Local Market Monitor, Inc.

South Bend and Gary are at the bottom of this list because their job growth had been less reliable. Before bargains evaporate, investors should move quickly into these markets. Straight, single-family rentals – with minor improvements – are the best bet (Winzer, Forbes).

Growing Demand

Des Moines, Omaha, Lake County-Kenosha County, Sioux Falls, Minneapolis, Madison.

These markets are showing solid job growth, but only moderate increases in demand thus far. Apartments appear to be a good investment in Lake County-Kenosha County and Minneapolis, due to higher density and prices. Since their dependence on the financial sector is comparably very high, most of these markets are also slightly riskier, so investors should be very careful to find properties towards the middle of the renter pool and definitely avoid the higher end.

Uncertain Demand

Little Rock, Wichita, Davenport, St. Louis, Chicago, Rockford, Milwaukee, Fargo, Peoria.

In these markets either demand or job growth are weak, or even more likely, both. Low home prices are also far more commonly found in these markets. This may tempt investors to purchase a low-cost property and rent it out for cheap, without spending another dime. However, renting at the low-end is a specialty that most investors should avoid. In uncertain real estate markets, it makes sense to first look for the safest geographic areas in that market. Then you can perhaps expand and renovate a really inexpensive property, turning it into a profitable rental. That definitely involves more work, but it has potential to give you a bigger return for less risk.

The Bottom Line

Concisely, there’s clearly room for excellent returns on housing market investments in the Midwest. While some areas have more opportunity, depending on what strategy you choose, there’s solid return on investment potential all-around. The more time that passes from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the less attractive prospects will exist. Active real estate investors would be wise to look strongly into the Midwest and move quickly on specifically the kinds of properties with the features described above. Considering the housing rental market is excellent and still growing, there are definite, safe strategies to fall back on.