Despite solid interest in buying a home – sparked by steady job gains, record low mortgage rates and higher rents – the severe drought in housing supply in much of the country over the past year accelerated price growth and kept many first-time buyers out of the market.
This is according to the National Association of Realtors’ 2017 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, which also identified numerous current consumer and housing trends, including: mounting student debt balances and smaller down payments; increases in single female and trade-up buyers; the growing occurrence of buyers paying the list price or higher; and the fact that nearly all respondents use a real estate agent to buy or sell a home, which kept for-sale-by-owner transactions at an all-time low of 8 percent for the third straight year.
In this year’s survey, the share of sales to first-time home buyers inched backward to 34 percent (35 percent in 2016), which is the fourth lowest share since 1981. In the 36-year history of NAR’s survey, the long-term average of first-time buyer transactions is 39 percent.
“The dreams of many aspiring first-time buyers were unfortunately dimmed over the past year by persistent inventory shortages, which undercut their ability to become homeowners,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “With the lower end of the market seeing the worst of the supply crunch, house hunters faced mounting odds in finding their first home. Multiple offers were a common occurrence, investors paying in cash had the upper hand, and prices kept climbing, which yanked homeownership out of reach for countless would-be buyers.”
Added Yun, “Solid economic conditions and millennials in their prime buying years should be translating to a lot more sales to first-timers, but the unfortunate reality is that the nation’s homeownership rate will remain suppressed until entry-level supply conditions increase enough to improve overall affordability.”
Other key findings and notable trends of buyers and sellers in this year’s 144-page survey include:
Student debt balances continue to grow
Highlighting the additional challenges imposed on consumers trying to reach the market, 41 percent of first-time buyers indicated they have student debt (40 percent in 2016). The typical debt balance also increased ($29,000 from $26,000 in 2016), and over half owe at least $25,000. Additionally, of the 25 percent who said saving for a down payment was the most difficult task in the buying process, 55 percent said student debt delayed saving for their home purchase.
“NAR survey findings on student debt released earlier this fall revealed that an overwhelming majority of millennials with student debt believe it’s delaying their ability to buy a home, and typically for seven years,” added Yun. “Even in markets with a plethora of job opportunities and higher pay, steep rents and home prices make it extremely difficult to put savings aside for a down payment.”
Single females make up larger share of sales
Solid job prospects, higher incomes and improving credit conditions translated to continued momentum in the growing share of single female buyers. At 18 percent (matches highest since 2011), single women were the second most common household buyer type behind married couples (65 percent). Furthermore, single women purchased slightly more expensive homes than single men despite earning less. The overall share of single male buyers (7 percent) remained below unmarried couples (8 percent) for the second straight year.
Down payment amounts decrease for first-timers, rise for repeat buyers
The ongoing climb in home prices pulled the typical down payment for first-timers to 5 percent this year (6 percent in 2016), which matches the lowest since 2013. Meanwhile, higher home values likely gave more sellers the wherewithal to use the cash from their recent sale to make a bigger down payment on their new home purchase (14 percent; 11 percent in 2016). Repeat buyers’ sales proceeds from their previous purchase (55 percent) surpassed their own personal savings (50 percent) this year as a larger source of their down payment.
Personal savings ranked first for first-time buyers as the primary source of their down payment, followed by a gift from a friend or relative (25 percent; 24 percent in 2016). Over a half of first-timers said it took a year or more to save for a down payment, and 25 percent said saving was the most difficult task in the entire buying process.
Age of first-timers stays flat; climbs to new survey high for repeat buyers
For the second straight year, the median age of first-time buyers was 32 years old. First-time buyers had a higher household income ($75,000) than a year ago ($72,000) and purchased a slightly smaller home (1,640-square-feet; 1,650-square-feet in 2016) that was more expensive ($190,000; $182,500 in 2016). Fewer first-time buyers purchased a home in an urban area (17 percent; 20 percent in 2016).
The age of repeat buyers increased to an all-time survey high this year (54 years old; 52 years old in 2016) as older households, perhaps with plans to stay in the workforce longer but with an eye towards retirement, felt more comfortable about buying. Overall, repeat buyers had roughly the same household income than last year ($97,500; $98,000 in 2016) and purchased a 2,000-square-foot home (unchanged from last year) costing $266,500 ($250,000 in 2016).
Supply scarcity leads to increase in buyers paying list price or higher
Underscoring the supply and demand imbalances prevalent in many parts of the country, 42 percent of buyers paid the list price or higher for their home, which is up from a year ago (40 percent) and a new survey high since tracking began in 2007. Buyers in the West were the most likely (51 percent) to pay at or above list price.
“Many of those in the market to buy a home this year had little room to negotiate,” said Yun. “Listings in the affordable price range drew immediate interest, and the winning offer often times had to waive some contingencies or come in at or above asking price to close the deal.”
Buyers report less difficulty obtaining a mortgage
The improving financial health of borrowers and a slight ease in credit standards are leading to a smoother process in obtaining a mortgage. Fewer buyers (34 percent) compared to a year ago (37 percent) indicated that the mortgage application and approval process was somewhat or much more difficult than they expected.
Fifty-eight percent of buyers financed their purchase with a conventional mortgage, and 34 percent of first-time buyers took out a low-down payment Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgage, which is up from 33 percent last year but down from 46 percent five years ago.