Surveys show residents get fewer bargains compared to nation

Whether it’s a response to the oil boom or just a factor of the overall economy, the cost of living in Minot compared to the nation as a whole has risen in recent years.

Minot’s cost of living index was 104.7 with 100 as the national average in a report released by the Council for Community and Economic Research for the first three months of this year. The Minot Area Chamber of Commerce participates in collecting data that goes into C2ER’s quarterly reports. More than 300 cities are included in the national data.

Back in 2008, Minot’s cost of living index was 94.7.

The big difference? Housing.

Minot’s housing costs were indexed at 85.8 compared to a national average indexed at 100 in the first quarter of 2008. For the first quarter of this year, Minot’s housing was indexed at 120.8.

Minot saw housing prices increase signficantly after the 2011 flood, when a shrunken housing supply coincided with an increased demand for housing due to oil activity in the region and other growth. As many flooded houses are restored and new housing has come on the market, that pressure appears to be easing, although it’s not reflected in the cost analysis yet.

Mike McEown, executive director with Minot Multiple Listing, said home prices are down 12 to 15 percent from levels earlier this year. The one category where prices may be somewhat higher is on flooded homes that have been reconstructed.

Meanwhile, the rental market no longer is seeing large increases in prices.

Some pent-up demand still exists, said Jami Sison, regional manager with IRET.

“I still think that we have a strong market,” she said. “But we are starting to see that point where it’s starting to level out.”

“My belief is that they have peaked,” Doug Pfau with IMM, president of the Magic City Apartment Association, said of rents. “In the last six weeks, they have actually dropped from these highs, in most cases as much as 10 percent.”

In addition, landlords are more likely to offer incentives and concessions to get new renters, he said.

This changing scenario could affect Minot’s cost-of-living index in the future. However, movement in the index is not so much reflective of changes within a community as it is a gauge of how a community stacks up against other cities, which could be seeing fluctuations in their own cost-of-living expenses.

Factors affecting annual comparisons are the number of cities that participate in the survey each year and any adjustments in the formula that C2ER uses to calculate cost of living. The survey is based on the spending habits of households in the upper 20 percent of income levels. Those spending habits are determined from data in U.S. Census Burea surveys.

The categories of spending are groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services. How those categories are weighted in the formula can vary over time. In 2009, housing was weighted at 29. In 2013, the weighting factor dropped to 27. The highest weighted category, miscellaneous good and services, dropped slightly from 33 to 32.

The C2ER price survey specifies the items, sizes, brands and other criteria to ensure data going into the formula are identical for each city. John MacMartin, chamber president, said chamber staff submit prices from at least two or three merchants in most cases.

Chamber price grabbers check the cost of a T-bone steak, Heineken beer, dry-cleaning a white shirt, a man’s haircut, a McDonald’s burger, a movie, a game of bowling, a can of three tennis balls, labor on a washing machine’s repair, spin balancing a car’s front wheel and a gallon of regular unleaded gas, among numerous other items.

The health-care category includes routine visits to a physician, dentist and optometrist as well as a bottle of Advil and over-the-counter calcium pills.

The housing category prices a 2,400-square-foot house with an 8,000-square-foot lot, four bedrooms and two baths. The category also considers rental of a two-bedroom unit with 1.5 to 2 baths and at least 950 square feet.

The latest index report shows Minot close to the national average in most areas, with the exception of housing, health care and utilities. Minot’s health-care index was 109 and its utilities index was 81.8

Minot’s utilities index consistently has been below the national average. The index is supported by other sources that show North Dakota utilities are among the nation’s most affordable.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists the average residential price of natural gas in April 2013 as $7.09 per thousand cubic feet in North Dakota the lowest in the nation.

North Dakota’s residential cost per kilowatt hour of electricity of about 8.5 cents was the nation’s third lowest in 2011, with Xcel only slightly above the state average. Xcel reports its rates have risen slower than the average annual inflation rate since 1992, thanks in part to its diverse energy portfolio.

The index that presents a bag of Minot groceries as a better bargain than the same grocery bag in Fargo or Minneapolis comes as more of a surprise. But it’s not necessarily out of line with other investigations.

Lori Scharmer, family economics specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Minot, has been collecting grocery data from Extension agents across the state who volunteer to price 12 common grocery items, such as peanut butter and lettuce, in their local stores each month. The July survey included 45 stores.

The price gathering began in September 2012 and will continue through this year.

“We were looking to see if there was a trend of prices between oil impact and non-oil impact and also the type of store or the type of business and size of the community,” Scharmer said.

Results typically show that prices are higher in smaller towns or convenience stores, often due to factors such the store’s lower volume or delivery costs. On the other hand, Scharmer said, people need to consider the cost of travel associated with shopping where prices may be lower, she said.

“In our smaller communities, their groceries may be a little more expensive, but that grocery store is vital to that community, and they are happy to have it,” she said.

Surveys so far have shown that grocery prices are about 3 percent higher in oil-impacted areas after controlling for size of community and type of business.

The surveys have found that, overall, grocery prices in Minot have declined slightly since last September, Scharmer said. Prices in Ward County are lower than the state average, she added. Direct comparisons among similar stores in North Dakota’s major cities indicate that Minot consumers pay less, and the Extension surveys seem to back up the cost-of-living report that shows a lower index in Minot than Fargo for groceries.

The cost of living in Minot isn’t necessarily less than Fargo, though. The Fargo-Moorhead composite index of 93.5 in the C2ER report for the first quarter of 2013 reflected many costs being lower than the national index, including housing at 84.2. Fargo was higher than the national index only in groceries and health care. Fargo and Minot were the only North Dakota cities participating in the 2013 first quarter survey.

Nationwide, according to the C2ER report, living in New York City’s Manhattan is going to be pricey, while dollars will go further in Texas, especially for groceries.

To determine how much of a pay differential is necessary in moving from one location to another, C2ER provides a formula.

In a move from Minot, with an index of 104.7, to Minneapolis, with an index of 108.6, a person would subtract Minot’s index from Minneapolis’ index, then divide by Minot’s index. Multiplying the result by 100 shows that a pay increase of about 3.7 percent in after-tax income would be necessary to maintain the same standard of living.

To calculate a move from Minneapolis to Minot, subtract the Minneapolis index from the Minot index, divide by the Minneapolis index and multiply by 100 to conclude that income after taxes could be reduced by about 3.6 percent.