PhotoWith home prices rising and inventory shrinking, the homeownership rate in the U.S. has hit its lowest point in nearly 50 years.

That's the conclusion of the 2016 State of Housing Report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, which found that a lack of first-time homebuyers entering the market is the primary reason for the fall in homeownership.

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, lenders significantly tightened lending standards. At the same time, young people launching careers had difficulty finding jobs, while struggling under student loan debt. Faced with rapidly rising rents, they have had trouble in the intervening years saving up for a down payment.

As a result, homeownership rates for older, wealthier age groups have risen, but those increases have been more than offset by the decline in first-time buyers.

“The good news for the owner-occupied housing market is that these constraints should ease as the mortgage market continues to wrestle with the fallout from the housing crash and adapts to a new regulatory environment,” the authors write. “There are already indications from the Federal Reserve’s Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey that credit standards may be loosening, particularly for loans backed by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The upturn in real income growth among younger households should also help.”

Additional headwinds

But these buyers could well face additional headwinds in finding a house that suits their needs and that they can afford. In its most recent market report, Zillow found the prices of entry level homes have been rising faster than other segments of the market.

While prices for homes near the top of the market appear to have stabilized this year, the prices of the least-expensive homes continue to grow by about 8% per year.

It's really a tale of two markets. Consumers shopping for homes in the top price ranges will find more homes to choose from and will be able to negotiate down from the listing price. But first-time buyers, looking at entry level homes in the lowest price ranges, will find fewer properties for sale and will have to compete against other buyers. That could mean having to pay the asking price, or in the case of multiple offers, even more than the asking price.

“The housing market is much more forgiving for current homeowners looking to move into a bigger, more expensive home,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. “These buyers can be a bit more selective, and may even get a good deal."

But there are still fewer homes for sale in all price categories. The Zillow report shows the smallest decline in inventory among the top third of the housing market. In the bottom third of the market, first-time buyers are facing a nearly 9% drop in available homes.


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