MONEY buying a home

Turns Out Millennials Are Buying Homes. But Another Key Group Isn’t

Contrary to what you may think, twentysomethings are becoming homeowners. It's middle-aged folks that are forgoing it.

The latest Census data shows homeownership is still falling for young adults, and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports that the share of first-time home-buyers is slipping. While the housing market is clearly improving, with four of the five key indicators of the housing recovery from our Housing Barometer at least halfway back to normal, it looks like the recovery is happening even without much improvement in first-time homeownership.

Not so fast. The official homeownership rate published by the Census gives a misleading picture of homeownership trends. In fact, homeownership among young adults is both on the rise and not too far off from where demographics say it should be.

The “true” homeownership rate disagrees with the published homeownership rate, and shows that homeownership among young adults increased between 2012 and 2013 after hitting bottom in 2012. Once we adjust for the huge demographic shifts among young adults – far fewer young adults are married or have kids than two or three decades ago – homeownership in 2013 was roughly at late-1990s levels. That means that the demographic shifts among young adults account for the entire decline in homeownership for 18-34 year-olds over the last 20 years. In other words, if the late 1990s can be considered relatively normal, than today’s lower homeownership rate for young adults might be the new normal, thanks to demographic changes.

But that doesn’t mean all’s well. There may be longer-term damage to homeownership from the recession – but to the middle-aged, not millennials. Homeownership among 35-54 year-olds is lower today than before the housing bubble, even after accounting for demographic shifts.

Is Today’s Millennial Homeownership Rate the New Normal?

The demographics of 18-34 year-olds have changed dramatically over the past 30 years, between 1983 and 2013, such as:

  • The percent married fell from 47% to 30%
  • The percent living with their own children fell from 39% to 29%
  • The percent non-Hispanic white fell from 78% to 57%

Each of these demographic shifts is a headwind for homeownership. Young people who are married, have children, or are non-Hispanic white are more likely to own a home than young people who aren’t.

One way to quantify the total effect of these demographic factors on homeownership is to predict what might have happened to homeownership with these demographic shifts if none of the changes in behaviors or circumstances that evolved during the bubble, recession, and recovery took place.

Turns out that although the share of young adults who actually own a home remains considerably lower today (even with the uptick in 2013) than at any time since 1983, it is roughly at late 1990s levels after taking demographic shifts into account. Unless those long-term demographic trends reverse, there might be little room for young-adult homeownership to increase. You’d have to ignore demographic trends that pre-date the bubble to believe that young-adult homeownership will eventually return to its unadjusted pre-bubble levels.

This also implies that there probably hasn’t been a huge shift in millennials’ attitudes toward homeownership, either, since today’s millennials are roughly as likely to own homes as people with similar demographics two decades ago.

Worry Instead About Middle-Aged Homeownership

Here’s the surprise: it’s the middle-aged, not millennials, whose homeownership rate today looks lower than before the bubble. Using the same demographic-baseline analysis, the 2013 homeownership rate for 35-54 year-olds is below the “demographic baseline” (which barely budged over the past 20 years for this age group). Furthermore, homeownership for the middle-aged has not yet begun to turn around as of 2013, unlike for millennials.

Whereas the 2013 homeownership rate for millennials, after adjusting for demographics, is at 1997 levels, the 2013 demographics-adjusted homeownership rate for the middle-aged is at its lowest level in at least two decades (and probably in almost four decades).

And that’s the point: the rise and fall of homeownership during the housing bubble and bust is about people who are middle-aged today. The millennial generation was still in their early 20s or younger in the mid-2000s – too young to have bought during the bubble and then to have suffered a foreclosure: Only the oldest among the 18-34 year-old group in 2013 would have been of home-buying age during the bubble.

Turning more millennials into homeowners, therefore, may not be the missing piece of the housing recovery after all. Long-term demographic changes mean that homeownership among young adults is roughly where it should be. The real missing homeowners are the middle-aged.

To see the full article, including the analysis and charts, click here.

To read more from Jed Kolko of Trulia, click here.

Related:
MONEY 101 Should I rent or buy?
MONEY 101 What should I do before I buy a home?

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