The votes are in: 20% down payments still a rare feat from Les and Elaine

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How’s this for symmetry:  three out of four first tuesday readers say fewer than one out of four homebuyers are able to make a 20% down payment on a home purchase.

Those results are not surprising, considering the relatively low priority most buyers give to socking away earnings. Earners saved roughly 5.5% of their net disposable income (NDI) in the third quarter of 2014 (Q3 2014) — this is up slightly year-over-year, but remains historically low.

Buyers aren’t the only ones to blame for the rarity of the 20% down payment. The much-hyped 20% down payment requirement failed to make it into the final qualified residential mortgage (QRM) definition released in 2014. Also in 2014, both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced they were lowering down payment requirements from 5% to 3% for some mortgages. Expectations developed about down payment amounts influences the savings rate for prospective homebuyers.

The goal of enabling tiny down payments is to hasten an increase in home sales volume, which remains stagnant despite the relative strength of the economic recovery and slipping mortgage rates.

To illustrate: at the current 5.5% savings rate, a buyer with an annual gross income of $68,222 (the household median for California in 2013, according to the Census) will need to save for just under two years to acquire a 3% down payment on a $200,000 property. It would take the same buyer over 12 years to save for a 20% down payment at 5.5% per month.  Yes, there’s inflation, but it’s a wash: wages run with inflation, as do home prices over the term of each real estate pricing cycle.

But as we’ve stressed repeatedly, the less skin a buyer has in the game, the more likely they will be to default if home prices decline, as they are expected to do in 2015. Not exactly the best way to go about fortifying the still-delicate California housing market.

Further, it’s neither necessary nor wise to push potential first-time homebuyers into homeownership sooner than they’re financially able to handle it. Part of the reason the personal savings rate is so low is that wage growth for most all employees hasn’t kept pace with inflation, employment and GDP growth. You can’t save when too much of your check is going to basic living expenses.

Want to encourage healthier down payments? Subsidize down payments instead of mortgage borrowing. Tax-exempt down-payment savings accounts or even matching programs for low- to middle-income earners will do the trick, and as a bonus, build long-term personal wealth for those who become homeowners.

Elaine                                                     
DRE #00598428
Senior Director, Coldwell Banker New Homes Division
With over 200 condominium, townhome and loft projects successfully marketed

“Fewer properties for sale with such remarkably low interest rates make it a great time to sell but a more difficult time to buy”

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