|by Rocio Sanchez-Moyano|
Homebuyer affordability remains near an all-time high, so where are all the first-time homebuyers? According to indexes that incorporate gross measures of house prices, interest rates, and household incomes, affordability remains at unprecedented levels. The National Association of Realtors® index, for instance, shows that the median-income household can afford to buy a home in all but 7 percent of the largest metros. Given that affordability looks good on paper, the lack of first-time homebuyers in all metros has been surprising. In 2013, first-time homebuyers made up 38 percent of home purchases, below the historical average of 40 percent, dating back to 1981. The most recent American Housing Survey shows that 3.3 million households were first-time buyers in 2009-2011, a 22 percent drop from the 2001 survey, which covered 1999-2001. This decline in first-time buyers comes in spite of real mortgage payments for the median home that remain below $800 (levels unprecedented before the recession) and a 7 percentage point decline in the mortgage payment-to-income ratio since 2001.
Affordability indexes typically use median home prices and median incomes to estimate affordability, but it can be difficult to calculate the number of potential first-time buyers from these indexes, as median incomes differ for renters and owners and across age groups. To better estimate affordability for potential first-time homebuyers, the JCHS looked at how many renters in the age group most likely to be first-time homebuyers (25-34) have enough income to afford the costs of owning in different metro areas. Analysis was performed on the top 100 metros by population for which National Association of Realtors® quarterly median existing single-family home price data was available, resulting in 85 metros included in the final analysis. Affordability in this analysis is defined by the maximum debt-to-income ratio established in the Qualified Mortgage (QM) rule that went into effect in January of this year. The median home is considered affordable in this analysis if mortgage payments, with a 5 percent downpayment (more typical for first-time buyers), property taxes and insurance, and non-housing debt payments make up no more than 43 percent of a household’s income (extended metholodogy).
Historically, the majority of first-time buyers are households aged 25-34. Looking at renters in this age group, most would find the monthly costs of homeownership affordable in many metros across the country. Indeed, in 42 of the 85 metros studied, more than half of renters can afford the monthly costs of homeownership. Nearly 30 percent of the 25-34 year old renters in our sample lived in these affordable metros. Only in six metros, concentrated almost exclusively in California, are renter incomes so low compared to house prices that less than 30 percent of renters aged 25-34 can afford the costs of owning.
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So why, given that so many metros are affordable to potential 25-34 year old first-time buyers, has the first-time buyer share remained low? Many demographic and economic forces are constraining the transition to homeownership for renters in their 20s and 30s. The first is the fundamental mismatch between incomes and prices as shown in this analysis. Even in the metros where the majority of renters 25-34 could afford monthly homeowner costs for the median home, more than one-third of renters in this age group cannot. Real renter income for households aged 25-34 remains at some of its lowest levels in more than a decade. The unemployment rate for this age group peaked above 10 percent in 2010 and stayed above 7 percent throughout 2013. Also, as we indicated in our recent State of the Nation's Housing report, an additional 2.4 million households in their 20s and 30s were living with their parents in 2013 (than if the share living at home had remained at 2007 levels). Aside from covering monthly homeowner costs, unemployment and income stagnation mean that even in the lowest-cost metros in this analysis, many potential buyers cannot afford at least $5,000 for a 5 percent downpayment. Finally, 39 percent of 25-34 year old households have student loan debt and often allocate a larger share of their monthly income to student loan payments than older households. As the economy improves, however, there should be more willingness and ability by these households to become first-time buyers.