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The Pros, Cons and Wildcards of Millennial Homeownership in 2015

by Peter Thomas Ricci

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It’s the big question on everybody’s mind – is 2015 the year of the Millennial? Are we finally on the cusp of that great moment when young Americans take center stage and lead the housing market out of its recovery and into a new, more dynamic era?

There are many details to consider when it comes to answering such a prodigious question, so we’ve divided those nuances into three distinct categories:

The Pros

After considerable hardship, Millennial employment has shown definite signs of improvement the last couple of months. According to the government’s latest jobs report, the employment rate for Americans aged 25 to 34 was 76.8 percent. Though that’s still below the historical averages of 78 to 80 percent, it’s the highest level in six years, and in the end, Millennial homeownership will only improve if youth employment strengthens.

In addition to an improving economic climate, Chicagoland’s housing market remains receptive to Millennials. In fact, according to a late 2014 study from Trulia, 67 percent of our metro area’s housing stock is affordable for middle class buyers, compared to 46 percent in Houston, 22 percent in Los Angeles and 15 percent in San Francisco; so if Millennial homeownership is going to improve anywhere, it’ll be here in Chicagoland.

The Cons

Even with those encouraging trends, the odds remain stacked against Millennials, and in one thorny area – wages. Simply, though employment is improving, wages are not growing at a rate that allows greater rates of homeownership. In that aforementioned jobs report, the government reported that wages were up just 2 percent in 2014, which is essentially flat when you consider inflation.

And believe it or not, wages for Millennial employment have faired even worse. According to recent analysis, from 2007 to 2013, the wages for Millennials working in manufacturing fell 2.8 percent, compared with declines in the sectors of business (4.3 percent), retail (10 percent) and hospitality (14.8 percent). For Americans aged 18 to 24, the declines have been even worse – the retail and business sectors saw wages fall 21 and 22 percent, respectively.

The Wildcards

No discussion of Millennial homeownership is complete without student debt. After all, student debt remains the true wildcard in homeownership today, with the total debt load on student loans second only to mortgage debt. And the numbers are certainly alarming: since 1993, the average student debt burden has doubled to $33,000; because of that, as of 2013, according to a new study from the Federal Reserve, all 48 mainland states have between 20 and 30 percent of their 25 year olds living at home with their parents (here in Illinois, the share is between 50 and 60 percent); and even when Millennials move out, they’re opting to rent with other debt-addled Millennials – the share of doubled-up households has risen from 25 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2012, and here in Chicagoland, 36 percent of all households are doubled-up.

Because of that high debt load, Millennials have the worst savings rate in the nation at -2 percent, compared with 3 percent for Generation X, 6 percent for Younger Baby Boomers and 13 percent for Older Baby Boomers/Silent Generation.

And finally, when Millennials do decide to buy, they’ll be entering a dramatically more expensive housing market, thanks to investors, move-up buyers and low inventory. Here in the city of Chicago, median price was up 9.2 percent in 2014, and in the suburbs, the median sales price for detached homes was up 8.8 percent – and when you conflate those stats with the wage numbers we shared earlier, the homeownership portrait does not look like a pretty one.

Millennials certainly desire homeownership. A Trulia survey found that 93 percent of Millennials want to own a home someday, and many act upon those desires  – NAR’s 2015 Generational Trends report found that Millennials comprised 32 percent of all home purchases, the largest share of all the generations (Baby Boomers were second at 31 percent). With all the aforementioned economic realities, though, it may be some time before all 93 percent of those Millennials are homeowners.

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