Housing affordability in the U.S. has reached new record highs, according to a recently released report from the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo. The group says affordability of homes in the fourth quarter was at its highest level on records going back 20 years.

The Housing Opportunity Index indicated that 75.9 percent of all new and existing homes sold in fourth quarter 2011 were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $64,200.

The story was similar in Utah, where major metropolitan areas also enjoyed high housing affordability — even higher than the record-breaking U.S. figure.

In the Salt Lake metro area, 81 percent of all homes sold were affordable to families making the median income of $70,400, according to index. The only time local homes have been more affordable was in 1993 when nearly 83 percent of homes sold were affordable.

In the Provo-Orem metro, affordability was the same. Eighty-one percent of homes sold in the fourth quarter were affordable to families making the median income of $62,000. That’s slightly lower than the metro’s record-high of 85 percent in the second quarter. That’s because there was a slight rise in area home prices during the second half of the year, according to the index.

Affordability in the Ogden-Clearfield metro was the highest in the state. During the fourth quarter, nearly 89 percent of all homes sold were affordable to those making the median income of $70,600. This was close to the area’s record high of 90 during third quarter 2011.

In St. George, the final Utah metro area covered, about 76 percent of homes sold during the final three months of 2011 were considered affordable. That’s slightly lower than 77 during the previous quarter, the result of a slight home price increase.

The affordability is high because of several factors, including record-low interest rates. In January, the rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was the lowest monthly average ever in Fannie Mae’s mortgage rate survey, which dates back to 1971.

The affordability figures are in stark contrast to those during the housing boom. Five years ago, only about 30 percent of homes sold were affordable to a Salt Lake-area family making the median income.

A separate report from the National Association of Realtors confirmed the improving affordability. During 2011, housing affordability in Salt Lake City rose more than 19 percent from the prior year. The Realtors organization said Salt Lake buyers had more than enough income to purchase a home. The Salt Lake index registered 111 during 2011.

An index of 100 is defined as the point where a median-income household has exactly enough to qualify for a median-priced existing single-family home. The index looks at the relationship between median home price, median family income and average mortgage rate. The higher the number, the greater the household purchasing power, NAR said.

The return to affordability has boosted home sales as people take advantage of the opportunity to buy more home for the money.

“Sales have risen strongly in lower price ranges from one year ago, while sales at the upper end remain sluggish,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “More importantly, we’re seeing a consistent trend of declining inventory, which means supply and demand conditions are becoming more balanced in more areas, which will help stabilize home prices.”

In 2011, Utah homes sales were at their highest level in three years, boosted by high affordability, improved consumer confidence, record-low mortgage rates and improved employment conditions.

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