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On the House: First-time homebuyers can't afford to do it alone

From the glass-half-full department of residential real estate, here is a summary of the things the experts believe are blocking a full housing recovery nationwide.

From the glass-half-full department of residential real estate, here is a summary of the things the experts believe are blocking a full housing recovery nationwide.

The third annual "America at Home" survey from NeighborWorks America, a group working for affordable housing and community development, finds that, despite a growing economy, the pressures of student debt, confusion about the mortgage process, and a marriage-rate decline are important factors in the slow housing market.

The survey of 1,000 U.S. adults by Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Co., was conducted earlier this fall.

It found that student-loan debt continues to grow as an obstacle to consumers' ability to buy homes, as 57 percent of respondents who acknowledged having loans said this debt was either "very much" or "somewhat" of an obstacle, compared with 49 percent of respondents to a 2014 survey.

In addition, although mortgage rates remain historically low, a generally steady rise in home prices is outpacing income growth, leading buyers - especially first-timers - to search for ways to build up down payments.

But nearly 40 percent of respondents said they have received "nothing at all" in terms of information about down-payment assistance programs for middle-income home buyers, programs that could provide thousands of dollars to help bridge savings gaps.

Finally, the housing market is being pressured by changing demographics.

Of the respondents, 43 percent plan to purchase homes when they "got married or moved in with a life partner."

That's important for the housing market's rebound, because the median age at first marriage has increased to 29.3 for men and 27.0 for women, according to the Census Bureau, up from 26.8 and 25.1, respectively, in 2000.

Consumers have trouble estimating the accurate costs associated with homeownership and general home maintenance.

Survey respondents estimated an average cost of $15,070 for home-maintenance, but the actual cost for home repairs and upkeep nationwide is more likely between $2,000 and $6,000. While those who are current homeowners estimated costs for repairs to be $12,360, current renters estimated $20,503, suggesting that they might be deterred by perceived high maintenance costs.

I knew a fellow who bought a house in which the previous owner repaired a leak in the bathroom above the living room, but decided to swirl drywall compound over the entire living room ceiling for reasons that were never really clear.

When someone suggested taking down the original ceiling and replastering, the new owner pulled $3,000 out of the air as the too-expensive cost.

The real cost was $900.

Survey respondents also said they lack adequate information on the consequences of foreclosure.

Thirty-two percent believed they would have to wait "more than five years" after a foreclosure before they were eligible to obtain new mortgages to purchase houses again.

The reality is that people who have experienced a foreclosure need wait only two years before becoming eligible for most mortgage products.

"It's understandable that Americans looking to purchase their first home are intimidated by obstacles such as student debt, lack of a down payment, and weak credit," said NeighborWorks America president and CEO Paul Weech.

So it's critical "that first-time home buyers have access to information and programs such as down-payment assistance and affordable loans so they feel confident in purchasing a home independently."