The cost of owning a home took 34 percent of the typical home buyer's income last year, a somewhat lower figure than in the early 1980s, but still markedly high by the standards of the 1970s, according to a new study.
The stabilization of home-ownership costs at a near-record high has proved particularly troubling for young families trying to buy their first home, according to the study, which was prepared by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
"In the last five years, the increasing costs of home ownership have prevented an estimated 800,000 young households from purchasing homes," the center found. "The 1981-82 recession was disastrous for housing affordability; of even greater concern, however, is that home-ownership costs have remained high, even though the economy has recovered.
"Indeed, even though the peak of the Baby Boom is now hitting the prime home-buying years, home-ownership rates for young households are still declining," the report said. "Until the cost of home ownership returns to more traditional levels, many households will be denied an essential part of the American dream."
From 1968 to the late 1970s, home-ownership costs totaled 15 percent or less of the typical homeowner's income, the study said. But with the rapid inflationary increases in the values of homes, the typical family spent more than 40 percent of its income on housing by the early 1980s, a figure that now has dropped somewhat, but still is not even close to the lower levels of the 1960s and 1970s.
"Rising home-ownership costs have made purchasing difficult for all types of households, but those trying to buy their first home are particularly at risk," according to the study's authors, Kermit Baker and H. James Brown. "First-time purchasers typically account for about 40 percent of all home buyers, and young households, in turn, represent about two-thirds of all first-time home buyers."
The report said nationwide figures show that the median price of homes -- half cost more, half cost less -- was $67,000 last year, compared with $15,000 in 1968. "Over this same period, the average income of home buyers increased from $9,000 to more than $28,000. The net result is that the prices of homes purchased increased about 40 percent more than the incomes of the households that bought them," the study said.
"The home-ownership rate for young households has dropped off since 1979, and changes in costs are a major factor in the decision to forgo buying," the report said.
The study noted that various new mortgage instruments, such as adjustable-rate mortgages with low initial payments, have helped some young families buy homes. But the report warned that alternative financing arrangements "also have encouraged households to overextend themselves in their quest for home ownership."
But the researchers concluded that merely helping would-be home buyers to qualify for mortgages "does nothing to ease the underlying home-ownership-cost problems" of mortgage interest rates that are too high, houses that cost too much and lack of mobility among current home owners.
"These are manifestations of fundamental problems in the national economy -- problems that have escalated with large federal budget deficits and international trade imbalances," Baker and Brown said. "Until there is a commitment to solving these problems, we will continue to be facing the specter of high home-ownership costs and declining home-ownership rates."