Divided Decade

How young homebuyers pull it off

Reema Khrais May 3, 2018
Over the last year, Laura and Phillip Radke have spent thousands of dollars fixing up their $560,000 house in Los Angeles. Reema Khrais/Marketplace
Divided Decade

How young homebuyers pull it off

Reema Khrais May 3, 2018
Over the last year, Laura and Phillip Radke have spent thousands of dollars fixing up their $560,000 house in Los Angeles. Reema Khrais/Marketplace

After years of renting in Los Angeles, 32-year-old Laura Radke and her husband, Phillip Radke, finally found it. Their new home.

“We bought the ugliest house on the block,” Laura said.

Dirty peach stucco, rotting wood, burnt-out front yard — it wasn’t exactly what they had imagined for themselves and their new baby.

“I remember when we came here, looking around, trying to keep an open mind,” Phillip said. 

And that’s how Laura said they prepped their parents.

“We were like, ‘OK, we bought this house, but they advertised it as ‘needs cosmetic work.’”

It needed a lot more than that. There was mold in the kitchen, a hole in the floor big enough to slip through and the shower had been converted into a giant litter box. After pouring more than $25,000 into renovations, the inside of their house today is unrecognizable — almost.

“There’s still a random hole in the ceiling,” Laura said. It’s in the nursery.

The Radke’s not-quite-a-dream house cost more than half a million dollars, which is not surprising for a two-bed, two-bathroom house in a market like Los Angeles.

Laura, an environmental scientist who grew up in Hawaii, said she wanted to own for stability.

“From age 8 on, we always rented. It’s all I’ve known,” she said. “Renting can be very temporary, and you feel like someone has control over your life.”

Phillip chimed in: “It was always more of Laura’s thing to try to get a house. Because for me, it just seemed unattainable.”   

He’s not wrong — buying a house these days is harder, especially a first house. Twenty-, 30-somethings looking to buy are confronted with realities like rising home prices, tight lending standards and stagnant wages.

The homeownership rate among millennials is at roughly 35 percent, which is lower than any other generation of young adults in the last 50 years. There’s a common narrative that young people aren’t as interested in buying homes, that after watching what happened to their parents during the financial crisis, they’ve become wary of homebuying.

But poll after poll — including the Marketplace-Edison Research Poll — show that homeownership is as big of a goal for young people as it is for everyone else. It can just be difficult to do.

Many young homebuyers often get help from relatives, said Imraan Ali, a real estate agent in Los Angeles.

“The majority of young buyers that we’re working with do have help from family members,” Ali said.  

In Los Angeles, it’s common for houses to get up to 15 offers as soon as they hit the market, which can be stressful for his clients, Ali said.

“I get text messages sometimes at 11:30 at night. I’m very sensitive to their situation, but I also have a 14-month-old, so I need to sleep,” he said with a laugh.

Often, he’ll need the rest so he can deliver the bad news — that his clients didn’t get the house. When that happens, Ali unleashes the poetry, reading his weary clients the following verse from Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

“‘If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: Hold on.’ That’s kind of what I tell buyers,” he said.

In Tennessee, 29-year-old Marc Erickson and his wife, Rachel, didn’t have the words of an English poet to guide through them through the homebuying process. But they had something else.

“We had at least two to three other family members combing Zillow, looking at any other sites they had access to,” Erickson said. They scoured through profiles, one after another. “It felt like Tinder,” Erickson said.

Bad Tinder, where you get your hopes up only to be disappointed. Then, after weeks of searching, Marc and Rachel made an offer for a nearly $200,000 three-bedroom house in Chattanooga, and they got it. Great, right?

“I was feeling panicked,” Rachel said.

“I felt nauseous, I just felt terrible,” Marc said. “Even though I love the home and I think it’s a great investment, it’s just so much money. Like as a medical student, I’m already in so much incredible amount of debt.”

And it all happened so fast.

“I definitely have spent more time on Amazon thinking about percolators than I did thinking about this individual house,” Marc said.

Jefferey Spivey, 33, has a name for making the biggest investment decision of your young life in a split second: “shotgun homebuying.” That’s what he and his husband did recently when they relocated to Arkansas from New York City and had just a few days to find a place.

“Like the house that we actually chose, my husband was like, ‘Oh, we like this house, we want to go back and see it.’ And I was like, ‘What does it look like? I don’t remember anything about it,’” Spivey said.  

He didn’t have much time to grasp the process either.

“I didn’t understand escrow or, like, why it’s important,” he said. “And I feel like I only halfway understand now.”

But they pulled it off.

“This definitely signifies the biggest part of adulthood,” Spivey said.

And Spivey didn’t waste any time letting the world know. Once the deal was done, he posted a picture on social media with his husband, a big red sold sign, and a caption reading, “I’m a grown up now.”

This story is part of Divided Decade, a year-long series examining how the financial crisis changed America.

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