The meteoric rise of student debt has given way to contentious debates over its impact on homeownership among recent college graduates, but a new report from Fitch Ratings shows that education loans, while significant, are not the only barrier.
The credit rating agency examined economic headwinds influencing home buying decisions for people ages 18 to 35, concluding that stagnant wages, appreciation in home prices, conservative lending and rising student loan balances are all making it difficult for millennials to create wealth though homeownership. No one factor accounts for waning purchases, but student debt is complicating the process.
Fitch compared two hypothetical college graduates with the same income and expenses, except one has a monthly student loan bill of $203 — the median payment according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Based on an average, 30-year fixed-mortgage rate of 3.5 percent as a benchmark, the buyer with the education debt could afford about $45,000 less than the home buyer without debt, according the credit rating agency. The higher the student debt, the lower the mortgage capacity.
“It’s not just about student loans . . . but it does translate into some material reduction in how much can be financed by a first-time buyer,” said Bill Warlick, a senior analyst at Fitch. “You combine the fact they can afford less with some tougher underwriting conditions, it certainly suggests there will be some drag on first-time homeownership rates for younger people for some time.”
The delay in homeownership is especially concerning to Fitch because of the role housing plays in wealth creation. Home equity has historically been the greatest contributor to lifetime wealth creation for Americans, not to mention a critical driver of consumer spending. It accounted for roughly 70 percent of the total net worth of homeowners 65 and older in 2011, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau. That may change over the next 20 years if fewer young people buy homes or delay the purchase, Fitch said. And the long-term financial impact of foregone home-equity creation could be significant.
Millennials are on a path to wealth creation filled with obstacles. While nominal wages for recent university graduates climbed 13 percent between 2007 and 2015, rents across the country rose 22 percent and average student loan balances soared 60 percent during the same period, according to the report. High rents and debt payments eat away at the discretionary income needed to save for a down payment, as does sluggish income growth. It’s no wonder homeownership has declined the most among people under 35, falling from 41 percent in 2000 to 34 percent this year, according to census data.
First-time buyers in some larger urban markets must also contend with rising home prices, upping the amount of money needed to enter the market. Buyers can take advantage of federal programs that require as little as 3.5 percent of the cost of the home, but mortgage insurance and fees can offset the benefits of these loans. Small down payments also result in higher mortgage borrowing and debt burdens for first-time buyers with student loans, Fitch said.
Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson, however, said the low-down-payment programs offered by the Federal Housing Administration and others are a viable option for young buyers. She said the real estate brokerage firm is noticing more first-time buyers finding success gaining entry into the market through such programs.
“There are rays of light shining through the darkness,” she said. “We’ve opened the blinds, but we haven’t opened the windows.”
Education loans also factor into the debt-to-income ratio that lenders use to determine eligibility for a mortgage. Federal rules that took effect a few years ago restrict lenders from extending mortgages to buyers whose total monthly debt exceeds 43 percent of their monthly gross income. Based on that ratio, a college graduate with $30,000 in student debt would have trouble purchasing a home a few years out of school in a standard repayment plan. The higher the monthly student loan payments, the more difficult it is to qualify for a mortgage, said Grant Bailey, managing director at Fitch.
Yet an analysis by University of Michigan economics professor Susan Dynarski concluded that by the time graduates hit their 30s, when many people finish paying off their college loans, their chances of buying a house are about the same as graduates without debt. That observation is consistent with findings from Fannie Mae that said older millennials (those over 28) are purchasing homes at a faster pace as the housing market continues to recover.
“Older millennials are starting to catch up,” Richardson said. “One of the key reasons is 2012 was the armpit of the housing market, where people were able to buy at the bottom of the market, so those 28- to 34-year-olds were in the right place at the right time to take advantage.”
Credit scores, she said, are weighing more heavily in lending decisions than student loan burdens. Fitch noted that FICO scores for first-time buyers hover above the 720 to 730 range that was typical before the 2008 financial crisis, though credit scores appear to be heading back toward historical averages.
“The upshot is: pay your student loan on time every month if you plan on being a homeowner,” Richardson said.
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