In April 2014, 45 percent of all homes on the market were priced less than $500,000, and homes in this price category constituted 67 percent of all sales. Today, 33 percent of homes are priced less than $500,000, and the percentage of total sales has dropped to 62 percent of the market.
No question — inventory is down significantly from this time last year, but the decreases have not been evenly distributed. While overall inventory is down 15 percent, the number of homes priced less than $500,000 is down 26 percent. But 3 percent more homes priced greater than $1 million are available.
In the suburban markets, the differences are even starker. In Northern Virginia and Loudoun County, the number of homes priced less than $500,000 is 32 percent less than last year.
Scarcity of inventory is not the only issue facing millennials — or any other first-time buyer — that makes this a challenging market. Mortgage interest rates are about a half-point higher than they were in November, making homes slightly less affordable. And, ironically, those higher rates are contributing to the relative paucity of new listings coming on the market. In our robust sellers’ market, one might expect there would be a significant jump in the number of sellers taking advantage of very favorable market conditions.
In fact, new listings are up 2 percent in the Metro area year-to-date, compared to the same time last year. Plenty of homeowners who purchased or refinanced in the past few years and locked in sub-4 percent mortgages are in no hurry to sell their homes. The prospect of giving up those very favorable rates, then buying a home in a tight market at higher rates, is keeping people in their homes longer.
Another problem preventing many millennials from buying homes is student loan debt, and that’s certainly not unique to the Washington area. In its “Student Loan Debt and Housing Report — 2016,” the National Associations of Realtors found that among those who are current in their debt repayments, 71 percent of non-homeowners cite student loan debt as the factor delaying them from buying a home. The level of debt impacts both their ability to save for a down payment as well as their debt-to-income ratios to qualify for a mortgage. The delay in buying a home among non-homeowners and homeowners alike is five years.
So buyers of entry-level homes are truly feeling the pinch of both low inventory and higher rates, and many have student loan debt to contend with. Nonetheless, perspective and patience are both virtues. Mortgage rates are still extraordinarily low from a historical perspective, and markets seek balance over time. There needs to be a deeper level of understanding of the mortgage process, including the availability of low down payment loan programs. Millennials and anyone else can be successful buyers with planning and persistence.
David Howell, executive vice president and chief information officer at McEnearney Associates, writes an occasional column on the Washington area real estate market.