Cost of living is a major concern when moving to a new city. But military members and their families, who are stationed throughout the country based on where they’re needed, are not typically able to weigh the positives and negatives of living in a cheaper or more expensive location. What's more, many relocate often – some every two to three years – which means finding affordable housing can be a challenge.

A May 2016 study by home listing and information site Trulia determined which cities in the U.S. are the most and least affordable for military service members, based on rental listings compared to military housing allowances in each area.

Not surprisingly, Trulia found many of the most affordable locales for military members seeking off-base housing are outside vacation hot spots and away from major coastal cities. Affordable places that top the list for military families include New Haven, Connecticut; Saginaw, Michigan; and Rock Island, Illinois. The most affordable cities for military members without dependents are Fresno, California; Beaumont, Texas; and Albany, Georgia.

While military members with a higher paygrade will likely have no trouble finding a home within their budget, the Trulia study found members on the lower end of the pay scale, particularly those with families, struggle with housing options. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Florida Keys, Florida, as much as 90 percent of the available home listings would consume three-quarters of the median local monthly housing stipend, leaving the rest to cover utilities.

[See: The Best Apps for House Hunting.]

But even in the most affordable cities for military members and their families, the process of finding a new home in an unfamiliar place can be intimidating. Here are four things service members should keep an eye out for to find the best affordable housing options when relocating for a new post.

All options available to you. Housing allowances vary based on a military member’s paygrade, whether he or she has dependents and the base's location. The decision to live on or off base often depends on factors including security, ease of traveling outside the area and the local market's affordability.

Lincoln Military Housing, a subset of the real estate investment and management firm Lincoln Property Company, manages base communities in 11 states. Of the military housing it manages, 42 percent is located outside base gates but with all the same amenities of on-base housing.

“You do have some people who want to live behind the gates for security reasons – it just makes it more comfortable says Ashley Gorski Poole, national marketing manager at Lincoln Military Housing. Families who have frequent guests may want to live off base to make visitation easier, she adds.

Examine the expected cost of living both on base and in a private community. In a market where you can easily find a home for less than the monthly stipend, living off base may be more cost-effective, but in pricier areas, remaining in a military community will be the right financial choice.

An agent with experience. Limited time and access to information on your next city can make it difficult to decide where to live, whether to buy or rent and if on-base communities will better serve your needs. When it comes to these considerations, a real estate agent familiar with military relocation can make a world of a difference.

The National Association of Realtors has a special certification – Military Relocation Professional – for Realtors trained to work with military service members and their families. Realtors with this designation are familiar with the limitations military families face when searching for a new home, and they can serve as a resource to fill those gaps, says Jim Lawrence, a Realtor and instructor for the MRP certification in Birmingham, Alabama.

“The Realtor’s knowledge of the market area is vital, even though the military types know the process because they do it so often. What they don’t know are things like local transportation patterns, shopping districts, schools, recreational areas, things like that,” Lawrence says.

The right agent won’t just know the local market – he or she will also be well-versed in the Veterans Affairs home loan process and how it differs from conventional or Federal Housing Administration mortgages. Veterans United Home Loans specializes as a lender in VA loans and often recommends customers connect with an agent through its Veterans United Realty network, which is comprised of VA loan-savvy agents who are experienced working with military members and veterans.

“We can make this an easy process for the buyer and an easy process for the real estate agent so that there’s no hesitation in using the VA loan benefit,” says Brian Butcher, director of agent marketing at Veterans United Home Loans. “The VA loan benefit is an earned benefit for the service member – it’s something they’ve sacrificed to qualify for, and we think … it’s important that real estate agents honor that sacrifice and that commitment to our country by serving them through the VA home loan."

[See: The Best Affordable Places to Live in the U.S.]

A home that meets all needs. Choose a home that both meets your needs while you live there as well as creates less stress when it comes time to relocate.

Also consider how much renovation and maintenance a home requires. Lawrence says it’s important for real estate agents to understand that excessive renovation and maintenance isn’t an option for most military members. “They’re not looking for a fixer-upper," he says. "They want a house that will hold its value so that when they have to move in three years, they can at least recover the value.”

A home close to the base may be important to you. For military members, the golden rule of real estate, “location, location, location,” applies to more than getting the greatest return on investment– it is also key to finding housing close to the military base and other military members and their families.

But living outside base grounds doesn't mean you'll miss out on social opportunities. Gorski Poole notes military communities include services to help families quickly develop a sense of support and friendship, which is important since “many of these service members and their families are moving to a new location – they don’t have an established network.”

[See: 10 Tips to Sell Your Home Fast.]

Resources for a smooth transition. The military offers a number of relocation assistance programs for its service members to make the process easier. And an experienced agent will be able to direct military members to the right superiors for information on new housing stipends, budgeting and travel allowances to visit a new post before moving.

An agent familiar with military relocation will also be able to accommodate the limited time and availability a military client often has to find his or her next home.

“They will typically want to come to the new location where they’re being assigned. They will want to see houses, they will want to make a decision on one, write an offer on one and have the offer become a contract before they leave town,” Lawrence says.

Like civilian homebuyers, service members should seek assistance from professionals that provide the necessary knowledge and assistance to make each decision in the process a more informed one, from choosing the type of housing to selecting an agent and lender. Many real estate and relocation companies have divisions specializing in assistance for military families, and online resources, such as the Veterans United Home Loans website and Military.com, aim to help military members and the their families throughout the process.

Corrected on July 14, 2016: A previous version of this incorrectly cited a recommendation from Gorski Poole, which is that families with frequent visitors may find living off base easier.

Tags: renting, housing market, existing home sales, new home sales, military bases, military, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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