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Home prices are falling, but that doesn’t mean they’re affordable

The cost of buying a house is driving some to move in with relatives and delay having children.

And that’s affecting how Americans are living their lives. Some people who would have their own place right now are renting, moving in with mom and dad, and delaying having kids.

While home prices and mortgage rates may be falling, making the market at least a little more accessible, they’re doing so from historic highs.

“The big picture is that prices rose at an extraordinary rate from mid-2020 until mid-2022,” said Tucker. “The vast majority of that cumulative growth is baked into the price level.” And mortgage rates doubled too during that time — it was a one-two punch, added Tucker.

So yes, returning to homeownership levels for young people, which peaked in the early 2000s, will take a while, to say the least. And people are making other plans in the meantime.

A level of exorbitance not seen since the housing bubble crisis

For housing to be considered affordable under Housing and Urban Development Department guidelines, annual payments shouldn’t exceed 30 percent of the median salary. October’s figure not only exceeded that threshold but, for the first time in measurable history, surpassed the previous record of 42 percent of median income set in July 2006.

What happened? With the onset of the pandemic, there was a spike in housing demand that far exceeded supply, said Domonic Purviance, a subject matter expert in residential real estate at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. A lot of people saw an opportunity to buy houses because interest rates were low.

Many people with pent-up equity in their homes in high-cost markets (like New York, New Jersey or California) were able to sell their homes, pull their equity out and buy in lower-cost ones (like Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte or Boise), Purviance said. “It was sort of this instance for people to get out of dense areas like New York,” he said, in response to the pandemic.

That led to a significant increase of roughly 40 percent in home prices, which peaked in June 2022.

Since last fall, there has been some relief. The market is cooling down a bit, with median home prices falling since last summer’s peak.

Even by November, annual payments dropped to 44 percent of the median income, Purviance said.

But it’s a long way to go before housing is largely considered affordable.

Mortgage rates are also falling, though it’s unclear for how long that will be the case, Purviance said.

Predicting the housing market future is a bit of a guessing game

“The sort-of bad news for interested first-time buyers that I’m seeing at the moment is that the cool-down process might be nearly wrapping up,” said Tucker. “It may have run its course, which is surprising to me, considering how unaffordable housing still is.”

Of course, it’s possible, Tucker said, that we’ll see regional dispersion, where the unaffordable markets — like those out West — keep cooling down. But, at the moment, it’s a little too early to tell.

It’s especially hard, he said, to predict the future, even with seasonally adjusted data, in the winter months because the housing market activity grinds to a halt.

Another factor is the “tug of war between supply and demand,” said Purviance. Housing supply is measured by how many months it would take to sell a given month’s inventory of houses at the current sales pace. If it takes more than six months to sell, the market is undersupplied (and vice versa).

Last year, existing homes dropped below a two-month supply, which meant there was an undersupply of houses. “We were at a critical low,” said Purviance. “We just didn’t have enough.” That meant people putting in multiple offers and bidding wars and paying above the asking price, he added.

Homeowners who locked in low interest rates, such as back in 2021, on their current homes were also reluctant to sell.

Right now, housing supply is very slowly recovering, said Purviance. But currently, many builders are putting up homes that people can no longer afford for various reasons, like inflation making budgets tighter.

Going into this year, housing affordability really depends on how comfortable consumers are going back to the market, said Purviance.

Who’s buying houses, overall? Millennials with higher incomes.

Part of the reason housing became so unaffordable was because of millennials entering the housing market (sorry, just another thing to add to the blame list) en masse.

“Their movement into homeownership over the last few years played a big role in causing the price increases,” Tucker explained. “They were a lot of those people crowding into open houses and competing in bidding wars to get their first home.”

Who can afford a house mostly comes down to income and credit score, said Purviance. “The people who are buying, the people that have strong credit, higher income — better positioned to be able to buy a house,” he said.

Many of those loan originations are going toward buyers with credit scores of 720 and higher. “That’s observably different from previous cycles,” he said.

Why? “There also aren’t many homes at an affordable price point for many entry-level buyers,” Purviance said. Many investors are coming in and scooping up affordable houses in major markets.

As a result, many younger millennials are getting priced out, aren’t accumulating wealth and are facing barriers (inflation, crushing student debt and the other usual suspects) to placing a down payment at the ideal 20 percent.

Millennials (who are now in their late 20s to early 40s) represent the largest share of homebuyers. The median first-time buyer is also in their 30s, the report shows. Last year, 45 percent of homebuyers landed their first home. That figure, up from a low of 37 percent in 2021, is on par with pre-pandemic levels, the report said.

Those people under 35 who are buying houses are more likely, say, to be 33-year-olds and not people in their 20s (i.e., it’s older millennials and not younger ones), Tucker said. Part of that might be because of a small population boom creating a “bump in the snake.” (”The Little Prince,” anyone?)

For adults ages 35 to 44, the homeownership rate moved up by about 2 percentage points over the same period, and for older adults, the rates decreased ever so slightly.

Moving in with mom, dad, grandma, grandpa …

So for those priced out of the market, what’s their housing status?

But things aren’t going so well for the renters, either. A Moody’s report last month showed the U.S. hit a new rental market milestone: The median renter is spending 30 percent of their income on rent, which puts it right at that affordable housing threshold. Back in 1999, that figure was closer to 23 percent.

The people who can’t afford to buy are also moving into multigenerational households. Younger people are less likely to be their own heads of household now than they were in the past.

“A lot of the time that meant living with a roommate or living with parents and occasionally other family members,” Tucker said.

No house means no kids for some … at least for now

With challenges for first-time homeowners, anyone wanting to have kids may be waiting a little longer.

Part of the reason that peak homeownership fell for young people in the early 2000s was because they were pushed out. Many people, for instance, had to sell their home because they got laid off or foreclosed on, wrecking their credit.

“What makes this difficult is so much stuff happening simultaneously,” he said. That “stuff” includes a Great Recession, the rising cost of college and student debt, graduate education, and so on. These things all worked to increase the debt and delay a period of stable, decent income for some fraction of people, he explained.

“Housing costs were part of a nexus of financial challenges facing today’s young adults that add up to it just being more expensive, more challenging to put together the sort of the secure lifestyle that many view as a prerequisite — or at least sort of as a concurrent requisite — for having kids,” said Tucker.

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