Economy Watch: The Scoop on Home Ownership

Where is the rate of U.S. homeownership headed? That's an important question for apartment owners and developers.

Where is the rate of U.S. homeownership headed? That’s an important question for apartment owners and developers, who have been doing very well in recent years as household formation has begun to rise again, but both existing and new home sales have only eked out modest gains. But it’s also important for other kinds of commercial landlords, especially retail landlords, since homeowners tend to buy more stuff. The healthier the for-sale housing market, in general, the healthier for many kinds of retail. So the news that new home sales dropped in June against expectations wasn’t welcome for retailers and their landlords, though monthly numbers should always be taken with a grain of salt. Besides, year over year, new home sales are considerably better, not worse.

Sales of new single-family houses in June 2015 were at a annualized rate of 482,000 units, according to estimates released on Friday by the Census Bureau and HUD. That’s 6.8 percent below the revised May rate, but is 18.1 percent above the June 2014 rate. Indeed, the trajectory for new home sales has been increasing, with a number of bumps (such as this June) since the worst of the post-recession lows below 300,000 units a year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that even at 500,000 units a year, the rate is historically low. That’s about where the rate was when the government started tracking new home sales more than 50 years ago, when the U.S. population wasn’t even 200 million yet, compared with more than 300 million now.

Such slow growth in housing sales suggests a continued contraction in homeownership. A report published in June by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, citing government data, found that U.S. homeownership rate slid to a 20-year low of only 64.5 percent at the end of 2014 and then continued to fall, down to 63.7 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Second quarter numbers will be out soon, and there’s little expectation that the rate will be any higher. Another drop is much more likely, as population grows but people still shy away from buying houses or condos.

The falloff is evident across nearly all age groups, the study noted, but more pronounced in some than others. In fact, the homeownership rate only remains as high as it is because the Baby Boomers (often considered those born between 1946 and 1964, and until recently the largest population budge) are now in their 50-plus years. That’s when homeownership rates are typically high. Also, owners aged 65 and over have sustained historically high rates, benefitting by getting into the market while housing was relatively inexpensive.

Meanwhile, Gen Xers (born 1965-84) were in the prime first-time homebuying years when the housing bubble burst, and many of them had little or no equity to weather the recession. As a result, homeownership rates among Gen Xers have fallen further than those of any other age group. In fact, the study posited, the fall of Gen X from homebuying might be a more critical factor in the ongoing weakness of the owner-occupied segment than the famed slow transition of the Millennials (born 1985–2004) into homebuying.