The Recession’s Lost Generation of Homeowners Isn’t Millennials – It’s the Middle-Aged from Elaine Golden-Gealer

housingmktThe 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. Does that mean the housing recovery isn’t for real?

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. To see this, we did two things in this analysis: (1) account for changes in household formation to get a true measure of homeownership, and (2) adjust for longer-term demographic shifts to compare homeownership levels today with pre-bubble levels.

The answer: our “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. However, 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 twenty years. In other words, if the pre-bubble years of 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. Here’s why.

Young Adult Homeownership Actually On the Rise
The published homeownership rate equals the share of households that own their home instead of rent. It does not, however, capture changes in whether people are dropping out of the housing market to live under someone else’s roof, like those millennials in their parents’ basement, who – in case you missed it – are for real. But if, say, people move out of their parents’ homes and into their own rental apartments, the published homeownership rate would still be falling even if the share of young adults who own remains the same.

Instead, we looked at the true homeownership rate, which equals the number of owner-occupied households divided by the number of all adults; in contrast, the published homeownership rate equals the number of owner-occupied households divided by the number of all households. Of course, the true homeownership rate is always going to be much lower – by half or more – than the published homeownership rate because there are roughly twice as many adults as there are households. The key point, though, is that the published and true homeownership rates can move in different directions if the number of adults per household is changing. That is, in fact, what happened during the recession and recovery (see note #1).

During the recession, as more young people moved in with their parents and fewer headed their own households, published homeownership rate fell from 44.1% in 2005 to 36.8% in 2012 – the 7-point decline was a 17% drop in homeownership. (What we’re calling “published” numbers actually differ slightly from the quarterly and annual homeownership estimates by age group published by the Census – see note #2.) However, the published rate understated the decline: the true homeownership rate for young adults fell from 17.2% in 2005 to 13.5% in 2012 – a drop of 22%.

Then, during the recovery, more young people started to form their own households, primarily as renters. The additional renters pushed the published homeownership rate for 18-34 year-olds down further in 2013 to its lowest level since our analysis begins in 1983:


But our true homeownership rate, which takes household formation into account, turned up slightly in 2013. It’s still the second-lowest year historically, but the tide has turned.

DRE #00598428
Senior Director, Coldwell Banker New Homes Division
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