For U.S.-stationed active duty service members, small rural towns offer the best value to live off base with their housing stipend, while rentals around bases in the Florida Keys, Chicago and New Orleans is in short supply and expensive.

Not all military housing markets are created equal. For those service men and women who opt for off-base housing in the states, where you are stationed can be the difference between peace and prosperity or financial battles.

Today’s military members move, on average, every 2 to 3 years from one base to another and frequently get deployed away from base. This instability makes homeownership tough for active duty military members and is a big reason why they frequently resort to renting rather than buying a home. Active military and veterans can use this link to be connected to a Veterans Administration lender.

Nationwide, 64% of American households were home buyers/owners, but only 34% of military households were home buyers/owners. Also, 34% of households led by those working in Armed Forces moved in the past 5 years, which is much higher than the national average of 13% as estimated using 5-year 2014 U.S. Census American Community Survey data.

In honor of Military Appreciation Month in May, Trulia looked at which Military Housing Areas, or MHAs, are most and least affordable for active duty military members. We compared military housing stipend — which vary by housing area, rank and whether or not you have dependents — with local rental costs in order to estimate how affordable each military housing area is. We found:

  • For U.S.-stationed active duty service members, small rural towns offer the best value to live off base with their housing stipend, while rentals around bases in the Florida Keys, Fla., Chicago and New Orleans is in short supply and expensive.
  • Bigger cities and top travel destinations tended to have the lowest share of affordable rentals for these entry level enlistees without dependents. For instance, areas well-known to be expensive such as San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Austin, Texas; and Cape Cod, Mass., had housing allowances that are only $100 to $200 higher than those in inexpensive places such as Huntsville, Ala., and Beaumont, Texas.
  • Overall, military personnel in pay grades E01-E04 without dependents should not have a tough time finding an affordable home. Even in the least affordable military housing area for entry-level enlistees, San Luis Obispo, Calif., 8.4% of the listings are affordable.
  • Higher pay grade military members will have no trouble finding an affordable home. Even in the least affordable military housing area for the third highest pay-grade (E07) without dependents, Chicago, 38.4% of listings were affordable.

Having a dependent generally decreases affordability and also changes which military housing areas are affordable or unaffordable in relation to one another. We will go into further detail about this later in the report. We ranked military housing areas by how affordable they were (as measured by the percentage of rental listings on Trulia that have rents lower than 75% of the housing stipend) for entry-level enlistees in paygrades E01-E04, which comprise the majority of enlisted workforce. For those without dependents, you can search by all military housing codes by following this link. The following tables only show the 10 most and least affordable housing areas for those without dependents in pay grades E01-E04.

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Most Affordable Military Housing For Singles in Pay Grades E01-E04
Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus to Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus to Median Rent ($)
Fresno, CA CA022 $1,173 95.3% 113.3% $623
Beaumont, TX TX273 $1,065 95.0% 102.9% $540
Albany, GA GA072 $663 94.9% 89.4% $313
Fort Hood, TX TX286 $954 93.5% 138.5% $554
Huntsville, AL AL003 $1,008 93.0% 134.4% $578
Toledo, OH OH232 $870 91.2% 83.2% $395
El Paso, TX TX279 $927 91.2% 68.5% $377
Lemoore NAS, CA CA023 $951 90.5% 72.9% $401
Abilene/Dyess AFB, TX TX270 $804 89.9% 76.7% $349
Terre Haute, IN IN338 $765 89.9% 75.9% $330

 

  

Least Affordable Military Housing For Singles in Pay Grades E01-E04
Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus to Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus to Median Rent ($)
San Luis Obispo, CA CA392 $1,194 8.4% -0.5% -$6
Cheyenne, WY WY324 $714 9.3% 14.2% $89
Bangor, ME ME390 $777 12.0% 19.5% $127
Twenty Nine Palms MCB, CA CA032 $633 12.4% 15.1% $83
Grand Rapids, MI MI154 $756 13.9% 8.8% $61
Maui County, HI HI407 $1,563 14.5% -2.3% -$37
Austin, TX TX272 $1,137 15.6% -1.1% -$13
San Francisco, CA CA019 $3,048 16.0% -4.8% -$152
Santa Fe, Los Alamos, NM NM210 $981 16.1% -0.7% -$6.5
Cape Cod, MA MA121 $1,158 17.1% 10.3% $108

 

Best and Worst Rental Markets for Service Members in Pay Grades E01-E04 with Dependents

The equation changes drastically for service members with dependents – who need more bedrooms and space and have to deal with another government-calculated housing stipend. In other words whether or not you have a dependent impacts affordability differently for each military housing area.[1] Note: the number of dependents you have does not have any effect on how much stipend you receive. Those living with 4 dependents receive just as much of a stipend as those living with just 1 dependent.

Affordability is lower in many housing areas for those with dependents than those without dependents, even though having a dependent increases the allowance amount. To gauge affordability, we looked for listings with four bedrooms or less in our calculations for those with dependents and one bedroom and studio listings for our calculations for those without dependents.

  • The median rent for listings with four bedrooms or less is 162% higher on average than the median rent for one bedroom and studio listings nationwide. However, for those in paygrades E01 through E04, the housing stipend only increases 31% on average nationwide when you go from not having a dependent to having one, thus decreasing affordability.
  • Again, smaller rural towns such as Saginaw, Mich. and Terre Haute, Ind. tend to be the more affordable than expensive cities and luxury vacation enclaves such as Florida Keys, Fla. and Cape Cod, Mass.

For those with dependents, you can search by all military housing codes by following this link. The following tables only show the 10 most and least affordable housing areas for those with dependents in pay grades E01-E04.

Most Affordable Military Housing Areas for Those with Dependents for Pay Grades E01-E04
Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus to Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus to Median Rent ($)
 *- County cost groups include zip codes from around the country.
New Haven, Fairfield, CT CT051 $3,000 79.5% 100.0%  $1,500
Saginaw, MI MI156 $1,002 79.4% 67.0% $402
Rock Island, IL IL089 $1,350 77.4% 68.8% $550
Terre Haute, IN IN338 $981 73.2% 63.5% $381
Hanscom AFB, MA MA377 $2,643 72.9% 65.2% $1,043
Cincinnati, OH OH228 $1,470 71.6% 68.0% $595
Staten Island, NY NY413 $2,340 67.4% 56.0% $840
Buffalo, NY NY216 $1,461 67.4% 67.0% $586
County Cost Group 550* ZZ550 $966 67.0% 61.0% $366
Youngstown, OH OH233 $888 66.8% 54.4% $313

 

10 Least Affordable Military Housing Areas for Those with Dependents for Pay Grades E01-E04
Rank Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent ($)
1 Fayetteville, AR AR411 $855 9.2% -18.6% -$195
2 Florida Keys, FL FL069 $2,232 9.3% -17.3% -$468
3 Quantico/Woodbridge, VA VA296 $1,680 11.7% -1.2% -$20
4 Whidbey Island, WA WA312 $1,110 12.0% -11.2% -$140
5 Ventura, CA CA025 $2,145 13.9% -12.4% -$305
6 Boise, ID ID084 $927 14.3% -6.8% -$68
7 San Luis Obispo, CA CA392 $1,590 14.6% -11.7% -$210
8 Cape Cod, MA MA121 $1,545 15.7% -9.1% -$155
9 Maui County, HI HI407 $2,082 16.1% -9.5% -$218
10 Twenty Nine Palms MCB, CA CA032 $807 16.4% -5.1% -$43

 

Best and Worst Rental Markets for Service Members in Pay Grade E07

  • For those belonging to this higher pay grade, affordable housing is plentiful. Even in the least affordable housing areas such as Chicago; Florida Keys, FL; and New Orleans, roughly 40% of listings were affordable for those without dependents. In the most affordable places such as Albany, Ga.; Minot AFB, N.D.; and Cannon AFB/Clovis, N.M., virtually all of the listings were affordable.
  • Affordability generally decreases when you have dependents. Same reasoning that applied for pay grades E01-E04 applies for this pay grade too: Rents for listings with four bedrooms or less are, on average, 161% higher than rents for one bedroom and studio listings nationwide, but the housing stipend only increases 28% on average when you go from not having a dependent to having one.

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10 Most Affordable Military Housing Areas for Singles in Pay Grades E07
Rank Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent ($)
1 Albany, GA GA072 $885 100.0% 152.9% $535
1 Minot AFB, ND ND191 $1,653 100.0% 177.8% $1,058
1 Cannon AFB/Clovis, NM NM207 $1,104 100.0% 145.3% $654
4 Dyess AFB/Abilene, TX TX270 $1,074 99.2% 136.0% $619
4 Beaumont, TX TX273 $1,350 99.2% 157.1% $825
6 Saginaw, MI MI156 $1,008 98.7% 114.5% $538
7 Marquette, MI MI143 $1,068 98.0% 82.6% $483
7 Rock Island, IL IL089 $1,590 98.0% 189.1% $1,040
9 El Paso, TX TX279 $1,197 97.9% 117.6% $647
10 Fort Hood, TX TX286 $1,137 97.8% 184.3% $737

 

10 Least Affordable Military Housing Areas for Singles in Pay Grades E07
Rank Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent ($)
1 Chicago, IL IL325 $1,881 38.4% 12.9% $215
2 Florida Keys, FL FL069 $2,310 42.9% 28.3% $510
3 New Orleans, LA LA116 $1,347 45.2% 22.5% $247
4 Atlanta, GA GA071 $1,377 45.6% 25.2% $277
5 San Francisco, CA CA019 $4,011 45.9% 25.3% $811
6 Austin, TX TX272 $1,527 49.0% 32.8% $377
7 Nashville, TN TN269 $1,638 49.4% 31.0% $388
8 Santa Fe/Los Alamos, NM NM210 $1,305 50.0% 32.2% $318
9 Portland, OR OR243 $1,692 50.6% 35.4% $442
10 Charleston, SC SC259 $1,542 51.2% 34.1% $392

 

10 Most Affordable Military Housing Areas for Those with Dependents in Pay Grades E07
Rank Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent ($)
1 Rock Island, IL IL089 $2,121 94.5% 165.1% $1,321
2 Saginaw, MI MI156 $1,266 90.7% 111.0% $666
3 Terre Haute, IN IN338 $1,350 90.1% 125.0% $750
4 Minot AFB, ND ND191 $2,202 89.6% 133.0% $1,257
5 COUNTY COST GROUP 580* ZZ580 $1,350 86.8% 100.0% $675
6 Hanscomb AFB, MA MA377 $3,333 86.6% 108.3% $1,733
7 COUNTY COST GROUP 550* ZZ550 $1,281 86.4% 113.5% $681
8 Brunswick, ME ME136 $1,833 86.1% 129.1% $1,033
9 Cincinnati, OH OH228 $1,944 85.7% 122.2% $1,069
10 Youngstown, OH OH233 $1,101 85.6% 91.5% $526
*- County cost groups include zip codes from around the country.

 

10 Least Affordable Military Housing Areas for Those with Dependents in Pay Grades E07
Rank Military Housing Area MHA Code Housing Stipend % of Listings Below 75% of Stipend Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent (%) Stipend Surplus Over Median Rent ($)
1 Quantico/Woodbridge, VA VA296 $1,842 18.0% 8.4% $142
2 Ventura, CA CA025 $2,562 24.7% 4.6% $112
3 Warrenton, VA VA302 $2,334 31.3% 17.0% $339
4 San Francisco, CA CA019 $4,488 32.4% 15.1% $588
5 Stockton, CA CA035 $1,413 32.4% 9.1% $118
6 Edwards Air Force Base, CA CA457 $1,629 35.7% 20.7% $279
7 Santa Clara County, CA CA044 $3,714 35.9% 16.1% $515
8 Florida Keys, FL FL069 $3,084 37.1% 14.2% $384
9 Fayetteville, AR AR411 $1,251 37.4% 19.1% $201
10 Santa Fe/Los Alamos, NM NM210 $1,716 37.9% 15.2% $226

 

If you would like to see sortable affordability rankings for all pay grades and military housing areas, please use the following links: For those without dependents click here. For those with dependents, click here.

Despite the usual housing stipend being fairly generous, affordability can vary quite dramatically depending on where you are based, what pay grade you are in, and whether or not you have dependents. No two military housing areas are created equally when it comes to affordability, and military members should pay close attention to how much money they could receive and where they should live.

In addition to this analysis, we also built an interactive map-based tool that illustrates which military housing areas are the most affordable as you can see below. Link to this interactive map-based tool can be found here.

 

Methodology:

Military members receive a monthly housing stipend called the Basic Allowance for Housing, also known as BAH. Each year, the U.S. Department of Defense determines BAH rates based on which base a military member is stationed in, the service member’s government pay grade, and whether or not he or she has dependents. These three factors uniquely determine the amount of the monthly stipend. BAH is tax-free and recipients get the full amount in cash as long as they do not live on base. These stipends are wholly separate from and additional to your base salary. Government sources and interviews with former and current military members conducted by Trulia found that in general 75% of BAH goes towards paying rent, while the remaining 25% goes towards paying utility costs. Military members do have some say in where they get to be stationed in, so understanding which bases have affordable housing and which don’t can be useful knowledge. U.S. Department of Defense maintains a data set that maps zip codes to Military Housing Areas, or MHAs. Trulia Rentals listings within zip codes that belong to each MHAs were used to calculate affordability metrics for each MHA. For calculations for those without dependents, one bedroom and studio listings were used. For calculations for those with dependents, listings with four bedrooms or less were used. The median number of bedrooms when using listings with four bedrooms or less is two bedrooms, which is the most cost-effective living set-up for those with a spouse and one child. Those MHAs that do not have enough listing sample size were excluded from our analysis. We decided to rank Military Housing Areas, or MHAs, based on the share of listings found on the Trulia Rental listings whose rents are listed at or below 75% of BAH, which can serve as an affordability metric. First, we decided to focus on entry level enlistees, airmen, and seamen from pay grades E01 through E04. These are the 4 lowest paygrades for those enlisted in the US Military. Those in pay grades E01 through E04 comprise 53% of total enlistees according to February 2016 data released by the Department of Defense. Ranks in this pay grade include, but aren’t limited to – Army: Private, Private First Class, Specialist; Marine Corps: Private, Private First Class, Lance Corporal, Corporal; Navy: Seaman Recruit, Seaman Apprentice, Seaman, Petty Officer Third Class; Air Force: Airman Basic, Airman, Airman First Class, Senior Airman. Coast Guard: Seaman Recruit, Seaman/Fireman/Airman Apprentice, Seaman, Fireman, Airman, Petty Officer 3rd Class. The housing stipend for these 4 paygrades are the same amount. We repeated this exercise for pay grade E07, which is the third highest pay grade for enlistees, and roughly 8% of enlistees are in this pay grade. Ranks in this pay grade include, but aren’t limited to – Army: Sergeant First Class; Marine Corps: Gunnery Sergeant; Navy: Senior Chief Petty Officer; Air Force: Master Sergeant. Coast Guard: Chief Petty Officer. Migration and homeownership statistics for those who work in Armed Forces versus the overall national population were estimated using the 5 Year 2014 U.S. Census American Community Survey data. Heads of households that report household income and are at least 18 years old were used.

[1] See Answers 16, 17, and 18 of the following: http://www.defensetravel.dod.mil/site/faqbah.cfm#Q1 and also view the following document for more information: http://www.defensetravel.dod.mil/Docs/perdiem/BAH-Primer.pdf.