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Homeownership was crawling slowly back from its record low two years ago, but it just stalled, and the youngest homebuyers are behind that.
Millennials had been driving the nation's overall homeownership rate, showing the biggest gains throughout 2017, but they dropped back in the first quarter of this year.
Millennial homeownership fell from a three-year high of 36 percent in the fourth quarter of last year back to 35.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the homeownership rate for Americans aged 35 to 64 rose.
That caused the overall homeownership rate to stall at 64.2 percent, unchanged from the last quarter, after rising steadily from 63.6 percent one year ago. Homeownership fell to a 50-year low of 62.9 percent in 2016, after the worst housing crash in history.
The culprit is pretty clear: weakening affordability. Home prices have jumped dramatically in the past year, and the gains accelerated in the first quarter of this year, as the supply of homes for sale continued to drop to record lows. Mortgage interest rates also surged at the start of this year to the highest level in four years.
"Millennials make up the largest share of those seeking starter homes, a portion of the market that saw inventory plummet 14.2 percent and prices leap nearly 10 percent year-over-year in Q1 2017," wrote Cheryl Young, a senior economist at Trulia.
The supply of starter homes is so lean that March sales were down in that sector over 21 percent compared with a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors. Sales of higher-priced homes gained.
Homebuilders are moving some production to the lower end, but their focus is on move-up and luxury homes. The median price of a newly built home jumped 5 percent in March annually, reflecting not just housing inflation, but a continuing mix-shift to more expensive homes.
"The homeownership rate climbing out of its 50-year low should be seen as an opportunity for builders in the for-sale space," noted Young. "The sharp increase in renter households coming out of the Great Recession has finally begun to moderate as older millennials and Gen Xers shift into homeownership, presenting a boon for new construction.
Vacancy rates are down for both owned properties and rentals, meaning there will be no easing of today's high rents, which should be another impetus for renters to become homeowners. But those high rents make it hard for young buyers to save for a down payment.
And mortgage rates are continuing to move higher. The average rate on the popular 30-year fixed averaged 4.58 percent for the week ended April 26, up from 4.47 percent the previous week and 4.03 percent the same week one year ago.
"Mortgage rates are now at their highest level since the week of August 22, 2013," said Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac. "Higher Treasury yields, driven by rising commodity prices, more Treasury issuances and the steady stream of solid economic news, are behind the uptick in rates over the past week."
More buyers are now putting less down on their home loans, stretching their budgets to afford what is available. Others are simply continuing to rent, dropping out of perhaps the most competitive housing market in history.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect Cheryl Young's correct title.