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Millennials Have Crisis in Confidence Over Homeownership

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Many believe getting their money right before buying a home is too challenging

News this week has not been kind to Millennials looking to purchase their first home. After a report revealed that the nation’s supply of starter homes has plummeted in the last four years, driving up prices, new research compiled by NerdWallet, a financial advisory site, shows that this demographic is postponing homebuying due to a host of real and perceived difficulties, especially financial issues, a stance that has profound implications for the real estate profession.

It’s clear many Millennials are renting longer and delaying the decision to buy a home; first-time homeowners currently make up 32 percent of all buyers—the lowest since 1987—compared with a historical average of 40 percent.

But something has to give, since there’s an oncoming wave of interested Millennial buyers and a marketplace that doesn't seem to be accommodating them. The median age for first-time homebuyers was 31 years in 2015, in line with the average of the last few decades (it was 30.6 in the early ‘70s). Two-thirds of millennials haven’t reached that age, and over the next decade, millennials are expected to form 20 million new households, according to Harvard demographic research.

To say there’s an opportunity out there for developers who can create affordable housing, especially in urban areas, is a massive understatement.

"There’s a strong indication that millennials do want to become homeowners, which is quite different from what we’ve heard," says Chris Ling, mortgage manager at NerdWallet. "While overall homeownership has declined, millennials do see the long-term value in owning a home."

They Want a Home as Much a Previous Generations

While often portrayed as more independent and less willing to settle down, the majority of millennials want to buy a house, according to a survey on 12,000 people conducted by finance giant Fannie Mae. The majority of respondents, aged 18-39, felt owning was more sensible and financially, and 49 percent of the renters in the survey said homebuying would be their next move. But, the survey also showed skepticism. When asked why they weren’t purchasing a home, the majority (57 percent) cited financial reasons.

Stricter Credit Score Requirements are Holding Millennials Back

Most Millennials said credit score requirement were holding them back, and data from FICO, the company that determines credit scores, suggests they’re right. Stricter credit standards are keeping millennial homebuyers on the sidelines. A majority of millennial homebuyers don’t meet the median credit score of 750 to obtain loans backed by Fannie Mae, one of the biggest players in the industry, and a third don’t meet the minimum credit requirement of 620.

"There’s a strong indication that millennials do want to become homeowners, which is quite different from what we’ve heard."

It’s the Student Debt, Right? Not Exactly

This issue with credit scores and financing must be because millennials are being crushed by student debt, right? According to the The Institute for College Access and Success, student debt has surged 56% in the past decade, to an average of $28,950 per borrower. That sounds like an insurmountable burden, but it’s not necessarily the issue, according to the study.

Even with that debt burden, Millennials should still qualify for loans. According to a 2014 analysis by New America, a nonpartisan policy institute, the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree is paying $312 a month in student loans. Considering the estimated monthly income of $2,940 for a 25- to 34-year-old millennial, this is a student debt threshold of 11%, which is a medium debt burden, according to the CFPB. Other studies cited come to the same conclusion.

The NerdWallet research suggests the debt burden isn’t insurmountable, at least when it comes to homeownership. Fannie Mae data shows that 53 percent of young renters had debts of less than $10,000 (while 10 percent have debts over $50,000). Taking into account property tax and homeowners insurance, NerdWallet’s mortgage calculator arrived on a debt-to-income ratio for millennials of 37%, which is just above the high end of the range that guides lenders.

What’s the Solution?

According to NerdWallet, it’s better education, and a real estate industry that does a better job of explaining the options available to Millennial homeowners, including Federal Housing Authority loans, which require lower down payments.

In a 2015 survey by Fannie Mae, 42% of those ages 18-34 said they didn’t know what lenders expect of them, and 73% were unaware of lower down-payment options that range from 3% to 5% of the home’s purchase price, as compared to the commonly cited lender preference of 20%.

And currently low interest rates definitely help; median mortgage payments in December 2015 were still $380 less on average than before the housing market collapse.

"Millennials — and first-time homebuyers in general — should never just assume they can’t afford a home," says Ling. "The first step to owning a home is knowing how you can finance it, so you should always research your options."