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Where Have All the First-Time Buyers Gone? 6 Explanations For the Decline

by Peter Thomas Ricci

The market share for first-time homebuyers just keeps falling; what could be behind the fall?

First-time homebuyers in 2014 have made up just 33 percent of primary residence purchases, according to new numbers out this week from the National Association of Realtors; that’s down from 38 percent in 2013 and the lowest level since 1987.

Here’s a graph showing the market share for first-time buyers, per numbers NAR provided us:

In case you’re wondering, that big spike in 2009 and 2010 is an aberration – not only were home prices at historic lows, but the government’s first-time homebuyer tax credit was in full swing, when an $8,000 tax credit (which expired in June 2010) was floated to boost home sales.

Regardless, first-time homebuyer market share is most definitely dropping, and there are a number of possible causes for that decline. Here are the six most notable:

1. Massive Student Debt Burdens – This is easily the most obvious cause, but that does not mean its untrue. Not only did a recent study estimate that student debt cost the economy some 414,000 home sales thus far in 2014, but as we’ve covered before, student debt is a uniquely troublesome, uniquely damaging form of debt, and one that could have outsized impacts on housing. Case in point: not only does bankruptcy NOT discharge student debt, but the government can legally garnish wages and even social security payments to reclaim its funds.

2. Inadequate Savings – Even a 3 percent downpayment requires a hefty savings from the seller, and very troubling research from the Fed shows that the recession wiped out savings for a vast number of Americans. A couple unsettling facts: a quarter of Americans needed to exhaust all or nearly all of their savings after 2008; and only 48 percent of Americans can cover an emergency $400 expense without either selling something or borrowing.

3. Inadequate Incomes – The unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds remains stubbornly high at 11.4 percent, and millions more remain underemployed, meaning they want full-time work, but can only find part-time work. Another stat, courtesy of the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances, is particularly notable – if you’re a Millennial, and you have a net worth of more than $10,400, you’re richer than half the Millennial generation.

4. Tight Lending Standards? – We put a question mark at the end of that subhead because it’s not entirely clear that tighter lending is prohibiting first-time buyers. Though it is true that lending standards remain high (and that they’ve likely tightened further in the last year, as we recently chronicled), there are a couple of historical precedents that pose problems for that narrative. First, the share of first-time buyers fell to 36 percent in 2006, and that’s when lending was extremely loose and accessible; and second, though credit was tighter in 2009 and 2010, first-time buyer share still jumped on the back of the aforementioned tax credit; so likely, there are more fundamental things at play than lending standards, when it comes to first-time buyers lagging numbers.

5. Incompatible Inventories – Finally, everyone knows that housing inventory remains low nationwide, but it’s especially low for entry-level, first-time buyers. As we reported, the inventory for entry-level homes is down 17 percent nationwide, and that percentage runs even higher in certain metro areas.

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