Call them the prodigal millennials: Statistical measures and anecdotal reports suggest that young couples and singles in their late 20s and early 30s have begun making a belated entry into the home buying market, pushed by mortgage rates in the mid-3 percent range, government efforts to ease credit requirements and deep frustrations at having to pay rising rents without creating equity.
Listen to Kathleen Hart, who just bought a condo unit with her husband, Devin Wall, that looks out on the Columbia River in Wenatchee, Washington: “We were just tired of renting, tired of sharing (housing) with roommates, and not having a place of our own. Finally the numbers added up.”
Or listen to Erin Beasley, who with her fiance earlier this month closed on a condo unit in the Capitol Hill area of Washington. “With the way rents kept on going,” she told me, “we realized it was time” after five years as tenants. “With renting, at some point you get really tired of it. You want to own, be able to make changes” that suit you, not some landlord.
Hart and Beasley are part of the leading edge of the massive millennial demographic bulge that has been missing in action on home buying since the end of the Great Recession. Instead of representing the 38 percent to 40 percent of purchases that real estate industry economists say would have been expected for first-timers, they’ve lagged in market share, sometimes by as much as 10 percentage points. But last week new signs began emerging that hinted that maybe the conditions finally are right for them to shop and buy:
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▪ Redfin, a national real estate brokerage, said that first-time buyers accounted for 57 percent of home tours conducted by its agents mid-month — the highest rate in recent years. Home-purchase education class requests, typically dominated by first-timers, have jumped so far this month by 27 percent over last January. “I think it is significant,” said Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson. “They are sticking a toe in the water.” Kas Divband, a Redfin agent in D.C., assisted Beasley with her condo purchase.
▪ The Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance HousingPulse Tracking Survey, which monthly polls 2,000 realty agents nationwide, reported that first-time buyer activity has started to increase much earlier than is typical. First-timers accounted for 36.3 percent of all home purchases last month, according to the survey.
▪ Anecdotal reports from realty brokers around the country also point to exceptional activity in the past few weeks. Perrin Cornell of Century 21 Exclusively in Wenatchee, Washington, who helped Hart and her husband buy their condo, says that he is either actively working with or has serious inquiries from four times the number of first-timers that he’d typically see in January.
Gary Kassan, an agent with Pinnacle Estate Properties in the Los Angeles area, says nearly half of his current clients are first-time buyers. Martha Floyd, an agent with McEnearney Associates Inc. Realtors in McLean, Virginia, said she is working with “an unusually high” number of young, first-time buyers. “I think there are green shoots here,” she said, especially in contrast with a year ago.
Assuming these early impressions could point to a trend, what’s driving the action? The steady decline in interest rates, high rents and sheer pent-up demand play major roles. But there are other factors that could be at work. In the past few weeks, key sources of financing for entry-level buyers — the Federal Housing Administration and giant investors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — have announced consumer-friendly improvements to their rules. FHA cut its punitively high upfront mortgage insurance premiums and Fannie and Freddie reduced minimum down payments to 3 percent from 5 percent.
Price increases on homes also have moderated in many local areas, improving affordability across the board. Plus many younger buyers have discovered the wide spectrum of special financing assistance programs open to them through state and local housing agencies. Hart and her husband made use of one of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission’s buyer assistance programs, which provides second-mortgage loans with zero interest rates to help with down payments and closing costs. Dozens of state agencies across the country offer help for first-timers, often with generous qualifying income limits.
Bottom line: Nobody knows yet whether or how long this month’s reported upticks in first-time buyer activity will last, but there’s no question that market conditions are encouraging. It just might be the right time.
Kenneth Harney is executive director of the National Real Estate Development Center.