‘Unluckiest generation’ falters in boomer-dominated market for homes

The median age of a first-time homebuyer climbs to 36, as high interest rates and asking prices further erode spending power

Chris Swanson, 39, attends a showing at a home in rural Leroy Township, Ohio on July 23. Swanson was attracted to the property for its large square footage and nearly 8 acres of land. (Dustin Franz)

After only a few months, Chris Swanson is sick of shopping for houses in what the 39-year-old calls a “dumpster fire” of a market for first-time buyers like himself.

Though he has a steady job and has paid off his student loans, it feels like he’s two decades too late: He missed out on rock-bottom interest rates, and homes are far more expensive. Landing on the one property that will fit his needs and his budget is daunting enough, but there’s also pressure to move fast. “I’m in that weird position,” said Swanson, a marketing professional from Mentor, Ohio.

Homeownership — the main driver of wealth for most Americans — is out of reach for large swaths of the population. But the pinch is most pronounced for millennials, who are buying homes at a slower pace than those before them. Baby boomers, in fact, represented the largest share of home buyers this year — a spot millennials had held since 2014 — according to research by the National Association of Realtors.

“Boomers are absolutely in the driver’s seat,” said Jessica Lautz, deputy chief economist at NAR, because they have built up home equity and can pay in cash. “Unfortunately, that has pushed many millennials to the sidelines.”

Those born between 1981 to 1996 have been called the “unluckiest generation.” Since entering the workforce, they’ve experienced the slowest economic growth of any age group. They’ve also been weighed down by student debt and child-care costs, Lautz said.

Rising interest rates and persistently high asking prices have further eroded their buying power. The median U.S. home sold for $416,100 in the second quarter of 2023, a 26 percent jump since early 2020, Federal Reserve data show. Median sales prices were significantly higher in the Northeast ($789,600) and the West ($547,900).

Meanwhile, the average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage is now hovering near 7 percent, nearly three times the 2.6 percent recorded in early 2021.

As a result, first-time home buyers are older, with a median age of 36, Lautz said. That’s the oldest since NAR started keeping track in 1981, when it was 29. As the age climbed, she noted, the share of first-time home buyers sank to “historic lows.”

The high interest rates are “a real burden on young people who don’t have the high salaries of old folks like me,” said Joe Gyourko, 67, a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. “You can’t get around it, and you’ve got to make a decision: Do I value the house enough?”

‘Marry the house, date the rate’

A self-described economic Luddite and wary of debt, Swanson finds himself “completely lost” in the homebuying process. He’s taking in all the advice pouring in from real estate professionals, friends and colleagues, but was put off by one line making the rounds:

Marry the house, date the rate.

Meaning: Buy now, refinance later.

“I don’t want to have someone … pushing me to make a decision I’m not 100 percent comfortable with to begin with,” he said.

The “Date the rate” mantra has bounced around real estate circles since last spring, when the Federal Reserve was well into its most aggressive rate-hike campaign in decades to crush inflation.

The line was meant to “give comfort to home buyers that this may not last forever,” said Anne Stewart, a real estate agent in Portland. Yet in August 2022, she posted a TikTok pushing back against the advice. The phrase was being abused, she told The Post, “because it didn’t really give a big enough picture for people to understand” the complexities of the housing market.

Not only is it uncertain when — and by how much — mortgage rates will drop, but buyers should also understand that refinancing comes with hefty costs, she said. If rates drop, homeowners would need to calculate whether refinancing would pay off, she said. Though the cost depends on the specific loan, the average home refi runs about $5,000 and can take more than a year to pay for itself.

Stewart offers a different message: Accept that interest rates are high, and plan accordingly.

Dating the rate isn’t crazy advice, but it’s risky, said Gyourko, the Wharton professor. It’s sensible when buying a home may be the best option for people who want to start families and need more square-footage than an apartment typically provides, he said. It also might apply if the home buyer really loves the house.

In either case, he said, “be prepared to marry the rate.

“There is no law in economics that says rates will fall any time soon,” Gyourko said. “The history of rates says they go up and they go down. But how often and for how long? That’s a different matter.”

The unpredictability underscores the dilemma for first-time home buyers — especially millennials, who supercharged the housing market in the thick of the pandemic when they were flush with cash, working remotely and drawn in by relatively cheap mortgages.

“It’s odd because we’re dealing with high interest rates — and prices are still, in most cases, climbing,” Stewart said. “So it’s treachery for first-time home buyers when they look at their payments.”

Chelsea Jones, 34, has been looking for a house in Virginia Beach for the past seven months, a process she described as a “roller coaster.” She and her partner had hoped to find something in the $350,000 range, but most of their options were in less-than-desirable condition and needed repairs. Of the properties she liked, she was either outbid or it was sold before she could act.

Interest rates are also on Jones’s mind: She’s constantly going back and forth on whether she should buy now or wait for rates to drop.

“We can’t predict the future,” she said. “It’s obviously a huge decision and it’s kind of scary because so much is unknown.”

She doesn’t want to end up with a mortgage that makes her “house poor,” because she still has student loans to pay off. But reaching that milestone holds special significance for Jones; neither her parents nor grandparents owned homes.

“I didn’t have anything passed down to me,” she said. “So I want to be able to do that for my future children.”

Since the Great Recession, 30-year-fixed mortgages have generally averaged well below 5 percent — substantially cheaper than the 6 to 8 percent range seen in the two decades before, and well below their peak above 18 percent in 1981.

Stewart, the real estate agent, said that in recent years, rates may have been kept too low for too long, and the sudden spike has stunned first-time buyers. She cautioned against attempting to time a purchase based on the hope rates will drop, because “if those interest rates went down to [the 5 percent range] right now, we would see this market absolutely take off running with double-digit appreciation.”

For his part, Gyourko advised against rushing into homeownership with wealth-building as the primary goal. Though an oft-cited Fed statistic that a homeowner’s net worth is 40 times greater than that of renter is accurate, Gyourko said, the difference doesn’t necessarily come down to homeownership. Instead, the disparity has more to do with the types of people represented in each group.

The “homeowner” group tends into include people who are productive in the labor market, have properly saved for a down payment or have “built a ton of wealth” as they near retirement, Gyourko said — as opposed to a young renter who may not have achieved those benchmarks.

“What you’d really want to compare is a 28-year-old homeowner and a 28-year-old renter,” he said. The gap would be far narrower.

Jared Busker, 32, said he was ready to buy a house in Reno, Nev., in 2019, but he and his partner backed out at the last minute because it wasn’t a perfect fit.

“I regret not buying it,” he said, pointing to today’s interest rates and housing prices. There’s “definitely a fear that we made a bad decision for our financial long-term future.”

But bowing out of the deal allowed him to travel the country. He and his partner now live a nomadic lifestyle, staying in Airbnbs and housesitting, and also using their travels to visit places where they could possibly buy a home and settle down.

So far, he has not found the right place. Everywhere he’s visited and liked — from Taos, N.M., to Asheville, N.C. — affordability is an issue.

So he’s watching, and waiting.

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