Homeownership Rates Not What They Used to Be, for Good Reason

The main new reality is that homeownership isn't as easy to attain as it has been during most of the decades after World War II.

The latest report about existing home sales were neither good nor very bad. The fact of the matter is that existing home sales continue to bump along in the mediocre range, reflecting a number of realities about the U.S. economy in the 2010s. Perhaps the main new reality is that homeownership isn’t as easy to attain as it has been during most of the decades after World War II. For a lot of people, the money isn’t there, because the American economy simply doesn’t offer as many well-paying jobs as it used to. Less fundamentally — and probably easier to change — is the current strictness of lenders, which also slows buying and selling down. It’s only been a decade since loose lending inflated the housing bubble, after all.

According to the National Association of Realtors, total existing-home sales — which include everything: single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops — rose 1.2 percent to an annualized rate of 4.88 million units in February, up from 4.82 million in January. Sales are 4.7 percent higher than a year ago and above year-over-year totals for the fifth month in a row, NAR also said. That sounds good, but a sales rate of 5 million units a year is roughly where the market was in the mid-1990s. In other words, considering the population growth of the last 20 years, people aren’t buying houses at the same pace as they did then, and thus aren’t owning them at the same rate.

Does this kind of slugishness mean that the United States is evolving into a nation of renters? That would obviously be good for multi-family development and investment, and less good for retail sales, since renters tend to buy less stuff. But that’s too radical a change. Whatever else is said about the enormous rising generation of households, the Millennials, it seems unlikely that the desire for homeownership will be any less intense for owning property than it was for their parents and grandparents. So they will buy, eventually, if they can. But their circumstances will be more strained, meaning that despite their large numbers, they won’t be able to higher levels of ownership. So the country’s tilt back to an earlier ratio of owners and renters is probably going to endure.

The U.S. currently has a homeownership rate of 64.5 percent, according to the Census Bureau in February, tabulated for 2014. That’s the lowest rate in 20 years, but even so, about the same as during most of the 1980s. It can be argued — and it has been — that the upward bump in homeownership during the late 1990s and peaking at 69 percent in 2006 was also a bubble. It might not be that high again for decades, if ever, which may or may not be a good thing. In any case, demographics and economics still seem on the side of multi-family rental properties.