Markets & EconomyMortgage

How the rent trap is killing off first-time buyers

Rising rent prices are preventing renters from becoming homeowners

This year is when the stars are aligned perfectly for record numbers of tenants to tear up their leases and kiss the renting life goodbye.

Historically low mortgage rates won’t last much longer. Home prices will only rise. New 3 percent down programs from Fannie and Freddie sweeten the deal for new buyers. FHA’s mortgage insurance premium cut makes FHA affordable again. Incomes are up.

To top it off, greedy landlords are practically pushing their tenants out the door. Rents are rising every month, stinging tenants with the unexpected expense. In market after market, rent versus buy comparisons show renters how much they are losing by staying put.

According to Reis Inc., the average U.S. monthly rent has climbed 14 percent in the past five years — double the rate of home price appreciation. Rents rose 3.5 percent last year, according to Zillow, which forecasts another 3.5 percent hike this year. Rents are predicted to keep rising in 2016, though record numbers of new apartment openings are expected to slow down increases to about 2 percent, according to Zillow.

So where the heck are the floods of new homebuyers?

April sales reported a blip but certainly no breakthrough. Brokers report lots of traffic but not the “year of the millennial” boom some experts forecasted.

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According to NAR’s Realtor Confidence Index survey, sales to first-time buyers are doing a little better than last year. However, last year was one of the worst on record for first-timers. It returned to about the same market share as April 2013, but it was lower than the 33 percent average for 2014 and far below the 40 percent average considered normal.

California, the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere, where sales in entry-level price tiers are up 10 to 13 percent over last April but about the same as 2013, confirm these results.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before first-time buyers weigh in this season. However, a recent study by Freddie Mac suggest something very different is going on.

“We’ve found that rising rents do not appear to be playing a significant role in motivating renters to buy a home,” said David Brickman, executive vice president of Freddie Mac’s multifamily business, in a news release. “This contradicts what some in the housing market think as they expect more renters ought to be actively looking to purchase a home. We believe rising rents are primarily a sign of increased demand rather than a signal that home purchases will be increasing.”

The survey found that more than a third (38 percent) of renters who have lived in their home two years or more experienced a rent increase in the past two years. Of those renters, 70 percent would like to buy a home but cannot afford to at this point. Half (51 percent) said that because of the rent increase they now have to put off their plans to purchase a home. Some 44 percent indicated they’d like to buy a home and have started looking.

Instead of acting as an incentive to purchase a home, rent hikes are keeping renters captive by unexpectedly siphoning off cash that otherwise might have been saved to pay a down payment and closing costs. According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, it takes two years or more for the average first-time buyer to muster enough cash for a down payment, including the 3 percent required by the new Fannie and Freddie programs. Every time the rent goes up, it’s going to take a little longer to save enough to become a homeowner.

Historically, U.S. renters making the national median income could expect to pay about 25 percent of their income on a typical apartment. According to Zillow’s Meredith Miller, today tenants should expect to spend roughly 30 percent of their income on the median apartment nationwide.

As more renters find themselves locked in an apartment or single-family rental, they will help to keep vacancy rates low, which, in turn, will put upward pressure on rents. Meanwhile, interest rates will inevitably rise, as will the price of starter homes as well. Higher prices will require larger down payments and more costly closing services and fees. The Freddie and Fannie 3 percent down programs might not last long. For those still dedicated to homeownership, the wait will become even longer.

What are the odds that after a couple of years on this hamster wheel a sizable percent of that 70 percent of renters who would like to own homes tosses in the towel?

Welcome to the rent trap.

Steve Cook is editor and co-publisher of Real Estate Economy Watch and provides communications consulting services to leading real estate organizations. Visit him on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Email Steve Cook.