Over the past couple of years, rising pay and low mortgage rates finally converged to make make the dream of home ownership a reality for America’s millennials, many of whom had long been locked out of the housing market. But now, the door is on the verge of slamming on the under-35 crowd, leaving young families outside looking through the picture window—again.
That’s the scenario sketched by Mark Boud, chief economist for Metrostudy, a unit of real estate data and marketing company Hanley Wood. Metrostudy surveys housing trends in hundreds of towns and cities from the ground up, by visiting subdivisions to record how many homes are being built, going to contract, and sold—the latter evidenced by curtains on the windows and tricycles in the driveway.
During the housing-bubble frenzy from 2004 to 2006, as Boud recently recounted to Fortune, easy credit sent sales soaring, inflating prices and leading to a gigantic oversupply of new homes. In 2008 and 2009, the banks and other lenders, overwhelmed with defaults and foreclosures, throttled back so hard on credit that demand collapsed, and housing prices went into a tailspin.
The upshot: From 2009 to 2017, the housing market severely overcorrected, with prices steadily rising once again. “Housing went through a long period of undervalution,” says Boud. It wasn’t millennials, he points out, who benefited from the cheap prices and rescued the market. “The millennials had loads of college debt, and many had bad credit in general, often because their previous loans had been foreclosed on. And they were too young to be stable in their jobs,” he says. The upshot: The youthful cohort couldn’t get mortgages from lenders, who suddenly were rejecting all but class-A credits.
Instead, it was the affluent and investors that profited from low prices and soaked up the excess inventory. “The rich were the buyers without the credit problems,” says Boud. “And institutional investors bought houses cheap and rented them out.” In fact, he says, many of these new owners’ tenants were the very millennials shunned by the banks. In terms of home ownership, millennials became the lost generation.
A lost generation comes home
By 2015, the wealthy and the investors had absorbed the excess. America began generating far more new jobs than new homes, as construction was severely constrained by a shortage of ready-to-go lots. Starting around 2017, the millennials got back in the game, in a big way. The job rolls expanded, and wages jumped. The mortgage market reopened for the more well-to-do 30-somethings. So even though credit overall remained tight, sales to millennials rose, from 22% of new homes sales around 2011 to 50% in 2018—an extraordinary figure, given that millennials account for just one-third of the U.S. population.
Now says Boud, the market is once again turning against what’s now the biggest, and still hungriest, class of buyers. “Prices have risen a lot, and they’re still rising because we’re still way under-building compared to household formation,” he says. “At the same time, rates on home loans are rising, making it much harder for millennials to qualify.” The affordability problem will intensify because of the types of homes the builders are erecting. The only way to make money on expensive land is to build big houses, so “the average home size is 3,000 square feet, which is way too big most first-time buyers,” Boud says. “Ten years ago in Las Vegas, that sized house cost maybe $225,000 [thanks to the housing plunge]. Now it costs $350,000, way out of the reach of young buyers.”(
Hence, Boud sees sales shifting back to the affluent who’ve held high-paying jobs for decades, can qualify for more expensive mortgages, and want the big houses. Eventually, he says, the surge in prices will sow the seeds of a correction. But supply is so tight that the drop should be mild––unless America suffers a recession. “In that case, prices would be lower, but employment and incomes would also drop. So millennials could remain locked out.” Another problem: Millennials who secured a 3.5% fixed rate in 2016 or 2017 will stay in their existing home to keep the low monthly payment rather than trying to move up the housing ladder.
The solution, says Boud, is for builders to lower costs by shifting to factory-built homes they can offer at far lower prices. Homebuilders should also work with the banks to offer interest-only mortgages that would hold down monthly payments in the early years, and allow far more millennials to qualify for credit. He also notes that developers need to take steps to lower home owner association dues that can add $200 to a family’s monthly payments. More 2,000-square-foot houses would also be welcome, but for that to happen, municipalities would need to loosen zoning laws to allow far more lots to be subdivided, far more quickly. Today, towns are trending the wrong way, towards even tighter restrictions.
The outlook for sales is strong, Boud says, because so many Gen-Xers and baby boomers are renting, and more of them want to buy homes. Those folks can both afford to buy, and qualify for mortgages on $450,000-to-$700,000 homes. As for millennials, the generation that housing lost, then briefly found is about to be lost once more.