THE AVERAGE FIRST-TIME HOME BUYER is 32 years old, but that age appears to be dropping, according to the National Association of Realtors. The NAR reports that a record 345,000 homes were purchased by buyers in their late teens to mid-20s last year. The U.S. Census figures confirm that the number of Americans under age 25 who own their homes has surged from 15 percent a decade ago to 22.8 percent today.

According to NAR spokesman Walter Molony, “You see a greater number of young people who … understand that homeownership is the key to building wealth over time.” It doesn't hurt that a variety of low- and no-down-payment programs have proliferated. Together with financial assistance from relatives (and perhaps parents as co-signatories), conditions are ripening to allow new “baby buyers” to take advantage of attractive interest rates and flee the rental market.

Don't let the pierced eyebrows throw you. Some experts, the NAR says, believe these younger buyers are more disciplined than their older siblings and parents when it comes to spending and saving. Many purchase homes in “edgy” neighborhoods, betting on rapid appreciation.

Lenders, which previously shunned this demographic group because of a general lack of job history, a tendency to move from one place to another, and high student and credit card debts, are reaching out aggressively to new graduates. Instead of the usual two or three years of job experience that lenders used to demand, some now accept employment contracts from new college grads looking to become homeowners.