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Many would-be first-time homebuyers fear taking the plunge

First-time homebuyers Abbie Thuyer-Ohly and Kirk Ohly with eight-month-old daughter Clara Grace at their new house in Portland, Oregon.

Economists agree: it's a very good time to buy a first home. The job market is improving. Mortgage rates are near historic lows. Home prices are still well below the peaks they hit in the housing bubble. And home prices and mortgage rates are almost certain to go higher in coming years.

And yet, fewer first-time homebuyers are plopping down their downpayment and signing on the dotted line for a place of their own, than in previous economic cycles.

Kirk Ohly and Abbie Thyer-Ohly are typical of many first-time homebuyers. He’s 41, she’s 36. Both have steady jobs -- he with a company that imports Japanese interior-design accoutrements, she with a telecommunications company.

And -- like many homebuyers -- at the moment they find themselves surrounded by half-built Ikea furniture in their renovated 1915 bungalow in an up-and-coming neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. In the nursery is the newest member of the family, their eight-month-old.

“You know, at this point, we have a baby, we can’t keep renting and moving every couple of years,” says Abbie. “We just had to take the plunge.”

Abbie and Kirk got their new house (four bedrooms, one bath, renovated attic, 1,800 square feet on a corner lot) for $330,000. They were in a bidding war with 13 other homebuyers in the first week the house was on the market. They paid about $30,000 more than they budgeted for -- though Abbie says the low property taxes, plus a low mortgage rate, make the numbers work on their modest income.

And the financial logic of purchasing was compelling. They were paying $1,700 per month in rent. Rents in Portland and many other cities have been rising fast as the economy improves and there's not enough inventory of homes for sale to take the pressure off.  So, having locked in a 3.5 percent 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, Kirk and Abbie are saving about $400 per month now.

But they acknowledge the financial risk of buying isn’t far from their minds. They have friends with young families that bought earlier -- in the mid-2000s, while prices were still going up. Some of those people got burned, stuck with high mortgage payments and underwater homes.

“Our jobs I think are about as stable as anyone’s in this economy,” says Abbie. Kirk continues: “We had both been laid off in 2009. But all that time we were sitting on a down payment. I was thinking, ‘let’s stop renting and making improvements to different homes.’ And she was cautious about ‘let’s wait till we hit the bottom of the market.’”

They actually missed the bottom of the market -- they would have done better financially to purchase last year. But this was the house they wanted -- near daycare, in a vibrant neighborhood full of older residents and young families, on two bus lines, big back yard, room to grow.

Economists would expect that at this point in the housing recovery -- with home prices and mortgage rates still relatively low, but rising steadily -- more first-time buyers would jump in and try to buy sooner rather than later. Right now, first-time buyers are about one-third of all buyers. The rate has historically been well above 40 percent, says real estate professor Chris Mayer at the Columbia University Business School.

“The number of people who are worried about housing tying them down is probably higher today than it has been in the past,” Mayer speculates, “because I think people are really nervous.”

That’s not surprising. In the Great Recession, billions in middle-class housing wealth evaporated. And millions of homeowners were left paying mortgages on underwater homes they couldn’t sell.

But Mayer says more is going on here than potential first-time homebuyers being risk-averse in the aftermath of a severe financial panic.

“The fact that the labor market seems much less stable than it has been in the past decade or two has to have an impact on people’s decision-making whether to buy or to rent,” says Mayer.

If you buy now in Phoenix or Charlotte, and you could find yourself unable to take a job offer in Austin or Philadelphia, where they want you there yesterday to start work.

Mayer says surveys show remarkable consistency in Americans’ desire to be homeowners. More than four in five adults say they want to be homeowners at some point -- even after the housing crash.

For previous generations, Mayer says homeownership rates have typically peaked as people enter their 40s and 50s. Having accumulated housing wealth, retirees often sell their homes and supplement their income with the proceeds. That makes homeownership one of the most powerful vehicles for long-term savings, says Mayer. 

But this generation of young workers and families may be different. Having lived through the housing crash; being saddled with substantial student debt (which can make getting a mortgage, and paying the monthly mortgage bill, harder); wanting to be flexible and mobile in the modern job market -- the younger generation may take longer than previous generations to grab the dream of homeownership.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

First-time homebuyers Abbie Thuyer-Ohly and Kirk Ohly with eight-month-old daughter Clara Grace at their new house in Portland, Oregon.

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