It's a largely untapped market Realtors can only dream about: more than 80 million Americans ages 20 to 34, prime time for starting families and moving into their first homes. The youthful answer to the industry's prayers in a home-sale market recovering too slowly.

Though Realtors and builders have their money riding on a bounce in 2015, they are acknowledging that most so-called millennials can neither afford houses nor want to buy them.

Many millennials look at a house as "something you can get underwater on debt with and burn your fingers on if its value goes south," said Kevin Gillen, chief economist of Meyers Research and senior research fellow at Drexel's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, who tracks the Philadelphia region's real estate market.

"They're scared," said Halley Yankanich, 24, a senior account executive for a Center City pharmaceuticals ad agency. "The job market isn't all that steady, and they can't afford a down payment anyway."

Though "a couple of friends are buying and one closed recently," Yankanich said, most "are living in parents' basements or rent with roommates to combat college debt."

But Yankanich is herself a member of that rare breed, the millennial who buys. She and her boyfriend, Anthony Pell, 25, who works for a King of Prussia property-management firm, have signed a contract on a Fishtown condo.

Motivated by low interest rates and concern they would be priced out of the city, the couple took the plunge, exceeding their $250,000 target price by $100,000 for "our own space and a feeling of permanence," she said.

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are "currently the only U.S. generation with a negative savings rate - total debt exceeding total income plus savings," Gillen said, so putting together enough for a down payment is typically just not possible.

Renting is the preference of the vast majority of financially pressed millennials, whose demand for apartments has boosted the fortunes of the multifamily market in the region.

Nancy Pearl, an agent for Berkshire Hathaway Fox & Roach Realtors in Cherry Hill, said the millennial home buyers she had dealt with were "organized, and really do their due diligence."

They buy homes they plan to live in for at least five years and are "fiscally conservative," Pearl said.

Yankanich agreed, saying she and Pell decided to buy something one of them could afford if the other was unemployed.

Rather than seeing millennials "as the key to recovery," said Swarthmore broker Dave Welsh, of D. Patrick Welsh Real Estate, Realtors consider them "definitely a huge factor in a market that had been decimated" by the prolonged downturn.

Noted Diane Williams, of Weichert Realtors in Blue Bell, "There are still many that prefer to rent and enjoy their lives, [especially] those moving to the city to take advantage of the activities offered there."

Home-buying millennials tend to "look for houses or condos that are close to the action," said Keith Adams, of Elfant Wissahickon Realtors. "They prefer smaller, open spaces and tend to lean toward new construction or renovations because they are too busy to work on a house."

But not all of them.

Connell and Heather Carruthers, both 30, purchased a 1750s farmhouse in Upper Providence, Delaware County, after five years renting in Old City.

In their budget range, about $300,000, "it had to be a project," he said.

"The hardest thing about this process was coming up with the cash required," said Connell Carruthers. "Up-front money as well as the high housing prices in this area" are the biggest hurdles to home buying for their friends, he added.

"Both of us have been in the working world for eight to nine years," he said. Carruthers is an industrial designer in North Philadelphia, while his wife is a retail-store manager in Center City.

"When you graduate college and get your first job, you also get your first apartment, new clothes, furniture, and, typically, you're on a tight budget," he said.

The cash-in-hand hurdle persists even as rising rents make buying more attractive. A study by SmartAsset, a New York firm promoting financial literacy, put the average Philadelphia-area monthly rent at $1,414 but the monthly mortgage payment for an average-price $157,802 house at just $640 a month.

For Brandon and Nicki Ettinger, who bought their Cherry Hill townhouse in April 2014, "it was time to start a family, and we needed more space and a home base," he said, adding that most friends their age "are more fluid in their jobs and relationships."

He is 31 and self-employed; she is 32 and a school social worker. They were able to put 20 percent down and find something in their $300,000-to-$450,000 range.

But Brandon Ettinger noted that "there is not a ton of new construction, which we prefer, in desirable locations." Most developments "appear geared to the 55-plus community," he said.

Zak Eisen's parents helped him get through Rowan University without student debt, but Emily Tyszka had to take out loans as well as work through Camden County College and Rutgers.

While Tyszka, 27, an assistant property manager, thinks "it will be something I'll be paying for quite a long time," it didn't stop her and Eisen, also 27, a retail analyst at a bank, from signing a contract to buy "something to grow into" - a four-bedroom, two-bath single in Audubon, N.J.

After saving " a comfortable down payment," in January they started looking for houses in the $160,000-to-$200,000 range and found one in just a month.

"For our price point, there was plenty of inventory and plenty of areas to check out," she said.

Danielle and Jason Devine are even more unusual among millennials - they are move-up buyers living in a Harleysville condo that Danielle, 30, a regulatory-affairs associate for a pharmaceutical firm, bought when she was 25.

They are looking for a single-family detached home in Montgomery County for $300,000 to $400,000.

Married two years ago, and able to save a down payment, the Devines (Jason, 34, is an automotive technician) hope to cash in on interest rates below 4 percent.

"We did prepare for over a year to make sure we were in a solid place to easily obtain a mortgage," Danielle Devine said.

Their friends who want to buy are having a hard time saving for a down payment. "You have to be proactive," she said, "and work to pay down that debt and save."

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