They’re not yet an endangered species, but their steadily diminishing presence has some real estate analysts worried: First-time buyers are missing in action in housing markets across the country.
Traditionally first-timers have accounted for about 40 percent of purchases in the resale market. But in May, according to the National Association of Realtors, they were just 28 percent, down from 29 percent in April and 34 percent a year ago.
Big deal? Yes. If predominantly young, first-time purchasers are not entering the homeownership pipeline at anywhere near their traditional rate, at some point the system begins to choke. Owners of modest-priced, starter homes find it more difficult to sell and move up. They in turn can’t buy the larger homes they crave, reducing demand for houses in the more expensive categories. A shortage of first-time buyers at the intake level eventually triggers problems all the way up.
Where are these previously dependable, first-time homebuyers in their late 20s and early 30s? A new national study released last week offers important clues: A lot of them are carrying such heavy debts from student loans that they’re postponing buying houses.
Researchers for the One Wisconsin Institute found that the rate of homeownership among individuals who are paying off student loans is 36 percent lower than their peers who have no student debt. The disparity can be seen at all income levels. Among individuals who earn $50,000 to $75,000 a year, those who are still paying down student loans have a 28 percent lower rate of homeownership compared with others in the same income group.
Bulging student-loan balances aren’t short-term issues, either. The institute’s study found that the average payoff time is 21 years, ranging from 17 years for those who attended college but did not get a degree to 23 years for those with graduate degrees.
Worse yet, student loans are exhibiting high default rates – currently about 13.4 percent. That depresses credit scores and makes it more difficult to qualify for a mortgage under today’s toughened underwriting standards, where average FICO scores for buyers using conventional mortgages top 760.
Even financial regulators are now acknowledging the troubling linkage between student-debt loads and declining home purchases. In a recent report, researchers at the New York Federal Reserve said heavy student-loan balances that limit access to credit “may have broad implications for the ongoing recovery of the housing and vehicle markets, and of U.S. consumer spending more generally.”