Swelling student loan debt is commonly cited as a primary factor in the declining homeownership rate among 25- to 34-year-olds. But are the two really related?
While homeownership is down nationally since the housing market collapse, the drop among younger adults is particularly striking. Rates in the 25-to-34 age group dropped by nearly 8 percentage points from 2004 to 2013, according to a recent report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Over the same period, student debt soared by more than 400 percent to top $1 trillion — a run-up that dwarfs the surge in mortgage debt during the housing bubble, said John Dyer, the lending practice lead for the Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, which serves the financial services industry. He predicts the debt level will be a drag on home buying for years to come.
“What seems to be happening is you have a pause in your housing pipeline,” Mr. Dyer said. “Where a younger generation would normally be buying homes, it’s just not happening.”
Last year, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggested that student debt was suppressing homeownership. Before 2009, the researchers found, 30-year-olds with student loan debt were far more likely to be homeowners than those without it, in part because of their higher levels of education and incomes. But the gap between homeownership rates of 30-year-olds with loan debt and those without began to close during the recession. And by 2012, the trend had reversed.
But Beth Akers, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, says these findings do not prove a causal relationship. In fact, they could be misleading.
She said she has looked at young-adult homeownership rates over a longer period, and found that the reversal cited by the Fed is “a return to a longstanding trend that existed prior to 2004.” For most of the last 20 years, homeownership rates among young households with student loan debt have been lower, not higher, than rates among households with no debt, she said.
Her research, co-authored with Matthew M. Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brown Center, also disputes the notion that the payment burden is higher on today’s young adults. While the level of education debt has risen over all among young households (ages 20 to 40), the monthly burden of student loan repayment has not increased greatly over the last two decades. From 1988 to 2010, the typical household spent 3 to 4 percent of its monthly income on student loan payments. The monthly burden has remained fairly flat because of offsetting increases in income and longer repayment terms.
Extremely high burdens are still rare. In 2010, about 75 percent of households with people ages 20 to 40 who have education debt owed $20,000 or less, Ms. Akers said. Only 2 percent were carrying more than $100,000.
Perhaps the declining number of young homeowners has more to do with the weak economy and tight lending conditions. Mr. Dyer predicts that mortgage lenders will gradually ease credit standards over the next five years to open up the “buy box” to more young adults. But what and when they will buy will likely be different from the choices of generations past. “This generation has what some would label a fear of debt,” he said. “They try to be very conscious and pragmatic about what they buy and how much they agree to borrow.”