Home Work

Years. Not months, not quarters, but years. That's how long economists say it will take the housing sector to recover.

In many ways, that shouldn't be a surprise. Sales of previously occupied homes fell last year to the lowest level in 13 years. And this year is off to an even slower start, with new-home sales tracking less than any time since the government began keeping data almost a half-century ago.

In sports terms, this is worse than our city's title drought: Sales are now just half the pace of 1963 (a year before our last major sports championship) — even though there are 120 million more people living in the United States today.

But not all the housing indicators are dire. More Americans signed contracts to buy homes in March, up almost 25 percent from its low point back in June 2010. And in Ohio, first-quarter sales were up 9.8 percent over the last three months of last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. So as we approached our annual look at the best schools, safest towns, lowest taxes and most walkable places, our Rating the Suburbs feature also asked, "What's selling now?"

"What people are buying right now are neighborhoods as much as they are the house," says Howard W. "Hoby" Hanna IV, president of Howard Hanna Ohio. Hanna ticks off a list of suburbs that fare well in our rankings: Bay Village, Chagrin Falls, Westlake, Brecksville. But ratings don't tell the whole story.

Chris and Trina Ford, for example, moved here from Portland, Ore., and found an early 20th-century colonial in Cleveland Heights that's within walking distance of Chris' job at Case Western Reserve University. Michael Ocampo and his wife, Beth, bought a 4,500-square-foot California ranch with tons of extras that overlooks the Metroparks in Fairview Park. And first-time homebuyers Tom and Lindsey Lange found a split-level with a basement, 2 1/2-car garage and open floor plan in Berea. Each family found a house they loved in a neighborhood that fit their lifestyle.

The truth is that the market is tough. But it's also true that Northeast Ohio has a lot to offer, no matter what you're looking for in a place to live. And that's encouraging considering this recovery may take a while.

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