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Chasing the American dream: Homebuyers face hurdles

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Christina Colon, right, talks with her two sons, Aiden, left, and Ashton at their home in Lincoln, N.D., Monday, March 12, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service 3 / 4
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Homeownership seems out of reach for Amy Kielmeyer.

Saddled with about $80,000 in student debt, the University of North Dakota lecturer rents an apartment in East Grand Forks, Minn. Absent a boost in income, she doesn't foresee being able to afford a home of her own.

"When I really sit down and think about it, if nothing were to change and I would just continue where I'm at right now, I don't think I would ever be able to own a house," Kielmeyer said. "At this point I just sort of stopped even thinking about it."

Homeownership, long synonymous with the American dream, dipped to its lowest national rate since 1965 two years ago. And although it has since increased slightly, experts say prospective homebuyers face several hurdles, including tax law changes, rising home prices and heavy student loan debt.

The strength of the housing market has wide implications for the economy, with everything from home improvement stores to banks having a stake in people becoming homeowners. Those homeownership trends can also reverberate throughout society.

"For long periods of time, the strength of communities has been homeowners that have given back, have built schools, have donated time to religious organizations and charitable organizations," said Christopher Galler, CEO of Minnesota Realtors. "And if indeed we become a community of renters, will that same civic pride be there?"

'Solid' demand

The 20th century saw the nation's homeownership rate improve dramatically.

The rate sat at 46.5 percent in 1900 and dipped to 43.6 percent in 1940. But the Census credited a "booming economy, favorable tax laws, a rejuvenated home building industry, and easier financing" for the jump in homeownership following World War II.

The national homeownership rate reached 69.2 percent in the midst of a housing boom in 2004. But it tumbled during the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis, according to the government-controlled mortgage company Freddie Mac, before bottoming out at 62.9 percent in the second quarter of 2016 and climbing to 64.2 percent late last year.

"Leading up to the recession, homeownership was pretty easy to achieve," said Julie Gugin, executive director of the Minnesota Homeownership Center. "There were all kind of crafty loan products out there and less stringent underwriting requirements, and look where that got us."

The North Dakota homeownership rate was 60.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to Census figures. That was below Minnesota's 70.7 percent.

George Ratiu, the National Association of Realtors' managing director of housing and commercial research, expects "mostly sideways movement over the short horizon," despite "solid" demand for homeownership.

Indeed, almost three-fourths of renters would like to buy a house at some point in the future, according to the Pew Research Center. But there are a number of obstacles in their way.

Hurdles

Although the national homeownership rate has shown recent signs of improvement, a study prepared for the National Association of Realtors last year warned of hurdles that could "prevent any significant increase." It pointed to student debt, the availability of mortgages and the slowed pace of new single family housing construction.

Carrie Johnson, an assistant professor and personal and family finance extension specialist at North Dakota State University, said student debt is a "growing problem."

"We have found that most young people still someday want to own a house," she said. "It's not like they're not going to ever, it's just they're kind of delaying some of those bigger purchases."

The National Association of Realtors said in 2016 that nearly three-fourths of non-homeowners it surveyed believe their student loan debt is postponing their home purchases. Student loan debt totaled nearly $1.4 trillion last year, Experian said.

But a more stable economy is helping prompt younger people to look into buying a home, said Shawn Ostlie, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Area Association of Realtors. He shared statistics from his organization showing the number of home sales and average sales price increased again in 2017.

"The rate of increase has slowed down, but we still had more volume, more transactions than we've ever had before," Ostlie said.

Len Kiefer, deputy chief economist at Freddie Mac, noted that many millenials went through a "very tough economy." He said young men have dropped out of the labor force "in a big way," which could have implications for homeownership.

"If that rebounds ... that will sort of supply the jobs and income growth that you need to form a household and maybe become an owner if that's what folks are looking to do," Kiefer said.

Affordability

But Kiefer said the housing supply isn't keeping up with demand, which in turn is raising prices. He said that will make it "tough," especially for young adults who could swing the homeownership rate "in a large way."

Ratiu, the National Association of Realtors researcher, said increasing home prices are outpacing wage gains.

Mary Tingerthal, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency commissioner, said there were about 25,000 homes for sale across the state in January 2015. That dropped by more than 11,000 three years later, a trend she attributed to a construction slowdown and an increase in the number of single-family homes used by investors as rental properties.

"Inventory has fallen across the board," Tingerthal said. "What that's meant is upward pressure on the price of housing pretty much across the board."

In the heart of North Dakota's oil patch, Williston saw a housing shortage that drove higher prices a few years ago followed by a "leveling out," said Mitzi Bestall, president of Williston Board of Realtors.

"They're more normal now," she said. "But we're still doing an extreme number of real estate transactions and still selling lots of homes. And now we don't have the builders here, so we're running low on inventory again."

Dan Lindquist, president of the North Dakota Association of Builders and a homebuilder based in Fargo, said the pace of housing construction locally is less of an issue than factors like rising land costs, regulations and a lack of skilled labor.

"Affordability is definitely an issue," said Lindquist, who is also on the board of directors for the National Association of Home Builders. "It all just adds up."

The Fargo metropolitan area was in the middle of the pack on the National Association of Realtors' affordability index, with the Twin Cities and Bismarck not far behind.

Meanwhile, some realtors are concerned about recent federal tax law changes.

Under that Republican-backed law, fewer homeowners are expected to itemize deductions and use the mortgage interest deduction, according to Zillow. Ostlie said the incentive could become "irrelevant."

"The concern that we have as realtors is at some point, if nobody's using it, they're going to eliminate that," he said. "That definitely would hurt homeownership across the U.S."

But Jill Beck, the CEO of the North Dakota Association of Realtors, said she doesn't expect the tax law changes to deter home-buying in her state, where most already use the standard deduction.

"I still think it's part of the American dream, homeownership," she said.

'Dead set' on a home

When Christina Colon returned from her deployment in the Middle East, she was eager to find a home for her and her two children.

"I was crashing with my brother, but I was just dead set on getting a place to call home," the single mom and Army reservist said.

Financing wasn't an issue, Colon said, but she didn't know the first thing about buying a house. With a helpful real estate agent by her side, she settled into a twin home in Lincoln, N.D., just outside of Bismarck last year, a move that she said "just felt right."

While acknowledging the "headwinds" facing first-time homebuyers, Tingerthal said she was optimistic about their prospects. Absent spiking interest rates, she predicted modest growth in homeownership.

Gugin, the head of the Minnesota Homeownership Center, said homeownership is a "goal worth achieving," pointing to the sense of accomplishment and security that comes with it.

"Stable homeownership provides a cushion and a financial benefit to the family for generations to come," she said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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