Cheryl Russell has one word for anyone who’s adrift and looking for any direction in real estate, so long as it’s up: rentals.
The rental market is "a possible savior for many segments of the housing market," said Russell, a demographer who specializes in studying Americans’ housing and spending habits.
To say that Russell isn’t particularly encouraging about the near-term prospects for the housing industry would be an understatement.
Having crunched mountains of census and other data to glean the habits and attitudes of groups of actual and potential homeowners, from 20-somethings to retirees, she finds them generally scared off or stuck, and predicted they’ll stay that way for two decades to come.
Russell’s company, New Strategist Publications, recently published its third edition of "Americans and Their Homes: Demographics of Homeownership." It’s not the stuff that you’re likely to lose yourself in at the beach — unless, of course, you’re another demographer. It’s a pricey ($90 to $270, depending on the version) festival of numbers and spreadsheets, delving into such arcania as how many black householders are 45 or older, or how many people use oil to heat their homes.
"It’s mostly purchased by libraries, as a hardcover book or downloadable" said Russell, who was the editor of the widely regarded American Demographics magazine in the 1980s and 1990s, and later of the Boomer Report, a journal of the behavior of America’s most influential age group.
Tweeting as @TrendCop and writing an engaging, frequently updated blog, Demo Memo, the self-described know-it-all offers up revealing data nuggets and interpretations about consumer behavior — the kind of stuff to trot at a cocktail party when all else fails.
Such as: Older Americans might not be the penny-pinchers they’re portrayed to be, she writes — they spend close to the national average on goods and services, including such "youth" items as entertainment and women’s clothes. Or: The average number of jobs Americans have held by age 45 is 11.
But scratching down to the deeper, economic meaning of cultural numbers is her main interest, and Russell said she’s long been puzzled why the housing industry, in her experience, has so little interest in demographics, the study of population trends.
"There are many things they would have been prepared for, and not surprised about," when the bubble burst, she said.
The most telling indicator of the unsustainability of the housing boom was the complete misalignment of household income and home-price growth, which she wrote about at the time, she said.
"In the 1990s, everything looked rosy. You had boomers aging into peak homebuying groups, she said. "I predicted at the time that we’d see record-high homeownership, and we did.
"Then they juiced it with easy mortgage money, and obviously we got the housing bubble out of it," she said. "It boosted the homeownership rate to a much higher level than it would have naturally gone. Based on the demographics, it still would have been a good market even without (the easing of the lending standards)."
Currently, she’s quite blunt in her demographically based opinion that there’s little in housing to be encouraged about.
"Every single generation in the homeownership market is a negative now," she said. "Every age group is sidelined now."
She ticks off the conundrums of the individual age cohorts:
"The group that’s 25 to 29 … they’re deciding not to buy, or they’re not as ready to buy or are less able to buy than previous cohorts were in that age group," she said.
"I can’t tell you their specific motivations, but I can tell you the demographics behind their motivations," Russell said. "High unemployment rate and job uncertainty are making people afraid to make a large financial commitments, and the mortgage regulations have gotten stricter."
The 30-34 age group is the most worrisome to her because those in this group are prime homebuying age — and are the most likely to be underwater, Russell said. From 2004-10 the homeownership rate of householders in this group fell more than any other — and it’s still falling. In the second quarter, it slipped below 50 percent for only the second time since the (federal) data series began in the early 1990s, Russell said.
The big bogeyman for both of these prime homebuying groups, she said, is student debt.
"About 35 percent of people under 35 have student debt — that’s huge," she said. "I think the average debt load is about $23,000 among debtors. If you have student loans and a car loan, it’s going to be hard to take on mortgage debt.
"And it’s a number that’s going up," she said. "You’d think there would be a turnaround" with people unable to afford to go to school in this economy.
"But people seem so frantic to get a college degree that it hasn’t turned around yet," she said.
"The problem for the baby boomers (born after World War II through the mid-1960s) is that they can’t move," she said. "You have this pent-up desire among them to move — 32 percent of those who are 64 and older say they want to move when they retire, but if they sell they’ll have to sell for a lower price" than they’re expecting.
"As you move up to the older generation, a lot of them have mortgages," Russell said. "The percent of people who are 65-plus who have mortgages has increased to 27 percent. That’s a high number. It went up from 18 percent in 1999. Many of these people are going to be struggling with mortgage payments."
The emerging group that the housing industry should be focusing on now, Russell said, is renters. She’s hardly the first to point out the rise of the renter class, but she notes a divergence in the profiles among those who are renting now or will be soon, and sees an emerging market.
"Renters are interesting because you have the stereotypical renter, who is generally lower-income," she said. "But now you’ve got a new type of renter who may be a young couple, with a little bit more money, and they’re educated and they’re choosing to rent rather than buy.
She foresees a demand for single-family rentals for these tenants, as well as for those who want roommate relationships — but with comfort.
"I think a lot of rental units should be rehabbed to make room for roommates, with two master bedroom units or three," she said. The big question mark, however, is whether and when young adults will feel financially secure enough to walk away from doubling-up with their parents.
If it happens, demand for such properties might be a ticket out for boomers who currently feel stuck in their homes, Russell said.
"If I were a property manager or a real estate agent, I’d be getting into providing service for them," she said. "I’d be saying, ‘Are you stuck in your house? Can’t sell? Let me help you rent, and you can move wherever you want.’
"You round up a troupe of people who can go into these houses and prepare them for rentals. You tell the boomers, ‘Come to us. We will give you an analysis, we will do the work and we will manage it for you," she said.
Or think of something, she urged.
"Everybody’s holding their breath and waiting for the market to return, and it’s not going to happen," she said. "For the next 20 years, we’re going to be living with negative demographics and adjusting to a lower standard of living.
"The whole housing industry has to look at new ways to grow."