Last time we looked, home-ownership rates were simply an economic value that illustrates a relationship between householders with a title on their residence vs. ones who rent the place they live in the broad context of America's growing population.
It's a number.
But the value, whether it's (god forbid) 69% or 65% or (god forbid) 62%, has become laden with freight, carrying a political, emotional, and financial charge. Straying too far north of 65% in the early 2000s, it seems, signaled a going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket hormonal surge of wild abandon. Now, as the figure drifts toward and beyond its near historical lows, fear that one of the cornerstones of the American Dream is crumbling, and allegations as to who's to blame are on the rise.
Higher anxiety correlates with home-ownership pendulum swings too far--67% on one extreme and maybe 60% on the other--one way or the other. Our real need to be anxious about rates creeping toward the high-water extreme seem very unlikely. It's the low-end benchmark that causes most of the worry today.
But what if we're overthinking home-ownership rates, inferring as we do, that the behavior thus far of an age spectrum--say 30 to 35--reflects rather the behavior of an age cohort whose value-attitude-and-preference DNA is markedly different from multiple examples of that same age spectrum in the past? Isn't that giving a little too much credit to marketing consultants who like to use broad-brush paint to characterize, psychographically, a generation of people whose only initial source of kinship is their birth year?
Freddie Mac chief economist and deputy chief economist Sean Becketti and Len Kiefer boil all this overthinking down to the real world of demographics in this way:
"Now consider today's Millennials between 35 and 39 years of age. Their current home-ownership rate is 55 percent, eight percentage points lower than the 35-to-39 year-olds' rate 25 years previously. Does this lower rate among today's 35-to-39 year-olds reflect a permanently different generational attitude toward home ownership? If so, then perhaps the home-ownership rate 20 years from now among these Millennials may be around 68 percent—13 percentage points higher than it is today (reflecting the impact of aging) but 8 percentage points lower than the rate among today's 60-to-64 year-olds (reflecting the different preferences/behaviors of the Millennial and Baby Boomer generations). But what if the lower home-ownership rate of the Millennials is a transitory difference, the slowly-decaying effect, say, of the Great Recession? Then 20 years from now, the home-ownership rate of these Millennials may be about 76 percent, the same as today's Baby Boomers."
Becketti and Kiefer focus on the central debate--is the behavior difference among the current set of 30 to 35 year-olds temporary or permanent? Factoring in both an aging populace and a more diverse one, the two Freddie economists look carefully at two long-term forecasts for home-ownership rates--one from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, and the other from the Urban Institute. Both sources predict a decline. Whether those predictions happen, or whether their direction is correct, or not, comes down to three areas too clouded by uncertainty for confidence in the forecast. One of those areas, they aver, is that Millennials may wake up one day in the next couple of years and decide to 1. get married, 2. have kids, 3. buy houses, in whatever order.
Clearly, though, from a home building company strategy standpoint, there's evidence enough that imagining that moment--Millennials waking up, etc.--and matching that group to typical, conventional, baseline starter homes would be a misguided step.
Many of them will be moving from highly amenitized, super connected, well-appointed apartment communities in walkable neighborhoods, with restaurants, transportation, safety, and such to boot.
We think this all bodes for a skip-the-starter-home level of entry level. Call it aspirational move-up--like a Nissan Maxima, an Acura, an Audi A4--with some fair approximation of the value and wow-factor of move-up homes, dialed back to an attainable $280k to $350k price point (excluding California and the Northeast, of course).
If two of the primary skill sets of today's home builders are 1. to mitigate risk (around investing in residential real estate) and 2. to market value, we think the moment to move from the first aggressively into the 2nd mode is now. Now is the time for builders to pull out the stops on one of the things that they do best: market the value of the American Dream of home-ownership.
Then, home-ownership rates will take care of themselves.