Homebuyers looking for real estate value need go no farther than "Tornado Alley," according to a recent survey. And mortgage lenders looking for secure business through the end of the century should also place themselves in the twister zone.

Tornado Alley - which extends from Texas up to Missouri - contains six of the 10 most affordable U.S. housing markets this year, reports the real estate group of Ernst & Young/Kenneth Leventhal, Los Angeles, in its housing affordability survey.

Corporations looking to relocate or expand often use this survey to find a good place to move to, said Steve Friedman, national director of housing for E&Y/Kenneth Leventhal.

Residents of Oklahoma City, which tops this year's affordability index, need devote only 19.5% of their annual income to housing, the study said. In contrast, residents of the least affordable market, San Francisco, devote half of their annual income to housing.

Lenders who hope to catch the expected wave of originations in these affordable areas should act fast, said Ken Goldstein, economist for the New York-based Conference Board.

"If you don't have exposure there, you better scramble to do so - or get out of the mortgage business," he said.

America Online has already announced the purchase of a facility in Oklahoma City, which will create 1,000 jobs.

Mortgage lending in the state is "rather strong," according to James Hagan, treasurer of the Oklahoma Mortgage Bankers Association.

Economists have been touting the midcontinent as a constant positive in the nation's housing marking until the end of the decade.

"The decline in the economic environment and prospects on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts means that the housing hot spots for the next decade, and maybe even the next generation, will be the Midwest, South and Southwest," said Mr. Goldstein.

Part of the region's appeal can be attributed to its stability. "The Midwest doesn't suffer from the same peaks and valleys in the economic cycle as the Northwest and West," Mr. Friedman said.

Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Dallas, and Denver have successfully made the transition from boom-to-bust oil centers to metro areas with diverse economies. Insurance, software, and service industries are bolstering their job pools.

Major cities in Texas and Oklahoma will continue to gain importance as transportation hubs as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement encourages trade with Mexico, Mr. Goldstein added.

Cities in Tornado Alley also benefit from a Wild West "Urban Cowboy" image, he noted. "The people that move here are the ones that sing 'Don't Fence Me In' in the shower."

This year's affordability-index losers: Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Phoenix. In these cities, home prices as a percentage of income rose significantly in this year's survey, in part because of an influx of home builders after previous favorable rankings.

Overall, the West Coast is still the costliest area to live in, the study reported. The least affordable cities elsewhere included New York, Boston, Miami, Pittsburgh, and El Paso, Tex.

Although it is still less expensive to buy than to rent in most markets, the gap is closing as interest rates rise. The implementation of a flat tax would reverse make renting a home less expensive, the study says.

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