When the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority pulled together data showing how its home-ownership investments this year have played out across the state, the Front Range predictably gobbled up the lion’s share of loans and down-payment assistance.
But one chunk of the map stood out: Mesa County.
CHFA, created by the legislature in the 1970s to aid in home investment, saw the resurgent Western Slope region take advantage of several programs that helped buyers enter — or, in some cases, re-enter — a market that had been struck hard by the energy bust and the Great Recession.
“We’re seeing Mesa County growing in population,” said Paige Omohundro, CHFA’s home finance business development manager. The agency also has an office there — “boots on the ground,” she calls it — that aids residents in the battle to achieve or enhance homeownership.
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After six Front Range counties, Mesa County by far ranked as the most active location where lenders — more than 100 statewide — have used CHFA funding. CHFA has provided more than $44 million in first mortgages and $1.8 million in down-payment assistance in the first five months of this year — figures that aided 225 households in the county anchored by a reborn Grand Junction.
Omohundro noted that activity in Mesa County benefits from a more robust housing inventory than the metro area. While homes stay on the Denver market an average of only 1.7 months, they stay available in Mesa County an average of 2.3 months, she said.
Meanwhile, local lenders and real estate agents have witnessed a definite uptick in folks looking to join the ranks of homeowners. And they’re coming from multiple directions.
Many residents who left when the energy boom went bust to seek employment elsewhere as the recession took hold now are returning, said Shelby Kendall, an agent with Bray Real Estate in Grand Junction.
“We’re pulling out of that,” she said of the downturn. “A lot of those purchasers now are clients who had a bad time before. A lot of people are coming back into Grand Junction who left because they lost everything and had to find work.”
Mary Jane Douma, a branch manager with Academy Mortgage Corp. in Grand Junction, sees another kind of migration to the area.
“We have an influx,” Douma said. “Not as much as there was before, but people escaping Denver prices are coming here. And people that have jobs that are mobile — something in the past we haven’t had, where they’re able to work from anywhere. That’s helping drive the economy a bit.”
And then there’s the rent-or-buy conundrum. Rising rental rates, local lenders note, have been pushing clients toward ownership.
“There are people who can’t afford the rents anymore,” Douma said. “They’re so high, in some cases you can buy close to what you’re renting for. Or in some cases, the rent is going up and now you can buy and have a (mortgage) payment similar to your rent and own it.”
Kendall also sees people deciding it’s time to shift from rental to purchase. And yet the rental market remains tight enough to command hefty rents.
She said she was preparing to close on an investment property a month ago in Fruita, when the buyer said he was worried about finding a tenant. Kendall told him he could get $1,800-$1,900 a month for the house, which wasn’t even 2,000 square feet.
“The day before he closed,” she said, “I found him a tenant.”
From the start of this year to May 22, CHFA had surpassed $1 billion in loans and down-payment assistance, putting it on a pace to have a record year. Its programs have income and purchase-price limits that vary by county. But some aspects have changed.
“Back in the day,” Omohundro said, “it was restricted to first-time homebuyers. That’s no longer the case. But there’s a caveat: Only one CHFA-financed property at a time. And it has to be to purchase a primary residence. We’re not in the business of providing ski homes and investment properties.”
Front Range counties predictably consumed hundreds of millions of the available funding, with Adams County taking advantage of more than $192 million in mortgage loans and another $9.1 million in down-payment assistance. Arapahoe, Weld, El Paso counties and Denver followed, with each utilizing more than $100 million in mortgages. Jefferson County ranked sixth, at $62.7 million.
All but a handful of rural counties were represented in the distribution. CHFA served clients numbering in the single digits and low double digits in those areas. Omohundro ventured that the vast majority of those rural homes were from existing stock of single-family, detached homes.
Almost all of the CHFA programs have some form of down-payment assistance. A grant option offers qualifying buyers 3% that requires no repayment. A “silent second” option offers 4%, in a 0% interest, non-amortizing loan.
Douma said that when she chooses a CHFA loan for a client, 90% of the time it’s because they can find down-payment assistance.
Minde Harper, a branch manager for Guild Mortgage Co. in Grand Junction, said both the market and local demographics tend to make the CHFA programs a good fit.
“We definitely have a lower price point for homes than Denver,” she said, “and people in our area have a lower income that fits right into CHFA programs. If I have a borrower who needs to make repairs on the home they’re buying, then they use CHFA for a down payment and the rest for repairs.”
Longtime resident Kendall says she has seen Mesa County in high times and low times.
“These are good times right now,” she said. “I’m hoping real estate doesn’t keep going up. I think it’s stable, not like when it was so crazy before the bottom fell out here.”
Now, as residents filter back to the Western Slope and new ones discover Mesa County, brokers and lenders discern a sense of optimism in the community.
“I think we are optimistic,” Harper said. “Cautiously optimistic, for sure. I’m still a little worried that things could change. But we’re seeing a lot more younger people moving into the county now.”