What Will It Take for Millennials to Become Homeowners?

Many cities and states are offering programs to entice first-time buyers—with mixed results.

Saving enough to purchase a home in the fast-moving market is a challenge for young home shoppers. (rioncm/jocelyn kinghorn/rochelle hartman/Flickr)

The rap on Millennials is familiar: They’re broke, underemployed, and living in their parents' basements. They’re stalling when it comes to marriage and kids, and they have a general disdain for tradition. With that narrative it’s hard to imagine that many of them have the desire, let alone the means, to leave the nest and purchase homes of their own.

And it's partially true: Those in their late 20s and early 30s are definitely a bit behind earlier generations when it comes to shelling out for their first homes. According to the National Association of Realtors, among the under-35 crowd, who largely make up the first-time homebuyer market, homeownership is down to 36 percent from a high of 43 percent in 2005.

But that’s not exactly the whole story. “Younger buyers have expressed a desire to enter the market, and as they get married, get better jobs and begin to settle down and have children, they will,” says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. More than ever, young Americans are taking their time and trying to gain their financial footing before putting down roots. And according to Humphries, that could create a new normal when it comes to home buying, pushing the average age of the first-time homebuyer from 31 to between 32 and 34 within the next few years.

So what's causing the delay? It seems that a mix of generational preferences and economic circumstances is responsible. Across the nation renting is actually about 38 percent more expensive than purchasing a home, according to Trulia, a real-estate search-and-analysis site. Right now rates on mortgages are low. Very low. And though home values are rising, properties in many places across the country have yet to return to their pre-recession prices. That means that the cost of buying in many areas is relatively affordable, which is especially important for first time buyers who won’t have the proceeds from property sales to finance their purchase.

Even in New York and California where homes in major metropolitan areas can be particularly pricey, the spread between renting and buying is small thanks to few rental vacancies and skyrocketing rental prices. “What I'm paying for my mortgage is less than what I was paying in rent,” says Yasmine Parrish, a 28-year-old PR-and-marketing professional who recently purchased a home in Los Angeles. Parrish's mortgage broker helped her find a program for first-time buyers that allowed her to put down 5 percent instead of the standard 20 percent. Without a low down-payment option Parrish says she would have eventually reached her goal of owning a home, but saving up for it would’ve taken at least another year or two and by then, it’s likely that prices would have risen.

So why aren’t all young would-be homebuyers just taking advantage of the low down-payment options offered by these plans to get into the market before prices rise further? Not everyone has access to the programs that can shrink a down payment, and even for those who do, such help may not be enough. “Typically the down payment is the biggest hurdle for a homebuyer” says Ken Fears, director of regional economics and housing finance at the National Association of Realtors. “Programs that have a lower down payment are going to provide a bigger boost for the consumer.” Some programs, like Fannie Mae’s Community Home Buyer’s, require a 5 percent down payment, a sum that still makes saving a difficult proposition for many young people, particularly those in areas with quickly climbing home prices, such as San Francisco and San Diego. States like North Carolina and New Hampshire, have particularly well-regarded programs that allow for down payments of about 3 percent. Some private lenders also offer assistance to new homebuyers, but fees and additional factors, such as debt-to-income ratios, can prove more restrictive.

But programs aimed at reducing down payments for first-time homebuyers can feel like a double-edged sword. In competitive areas, where homes are scarce and multiple bids are common, an affordably low down payment can be limiting. “You're not very competitive. If you're going into a house with multiple offers and they see 3 percent down versus 10 or 20 percent down, they're not going to go with your offer,” says Anne Simpson, a 27-year-old teacher and prospective homebuyer in Washington D.C.

Instead of utilizing a first-time homebuyer program, like DC Open Doors, she and her husband Chris Gillyard, managed to save up for a 10 percent down payment plus closing costs by forgoing nights out with friends and stashing away any extra cash they could. After saving for several years the couple already had more than a 3 percent down payment, and felt like they wouldn’t benefit much from a program aimed at down-payment assistance. More importantly, they wanted to ensure that their bid would be taken seriously in the hot D.C. market.

Tight inventory is also a major hurdle for first time buyers. “In a majority of large metro areas nationwide, the inventory of lower-priced homes for sale is much lower than inventory of mid and high-priced homes for sale,” says Humphries. That can make for a stressful and competitive shopping experience where prospective buyers feel like there’s a race to save up for their down payment before rates go up and favorite neighborhoods sell out.

“There's a lot of pressure with how quickly the market seems to be moving and how quickly neighborhoods seem to be getting more expensive,” Simpson says. “I felt like if we don't do this now, we won’t be able to buy in this neighborhood anymore. There is a window and that window feels like it closes very fast.”

And for more Millennials, issues of poor or nonexistent credit and lack of consistent wages push dreams of homeownership just out of reach. High student-debt payments combined with escalating rent leaves little extra income for savings and even those with steady jobs have learned that significant raises are hard to come by. According to Humphries, there’s no quick fix. Instead, patience, education, and advocacy programs for newer buyers will be the key to boosting first time home purchases among younger buyers, progress that could take another three to five years.