Published in CNN Business Perspectives
The US housing market has been hit hard by the pandemic. The visible impact of the lockdown has been clear, with millions of Americans out of work and few doing any shopping, including major purchases like buying a home. There has just been too much uncertainty about the economy and the potential deadly consequences of the coronavirus.
In April, pending home sales reached their lowest mark in nearly two decades. As a result, we expect actual closing activity, which follows contract signings, will have reached a trough in May.
However, as more Americans get back to work, we are starting to see both buyers and sellers returning to the market, creating the beginnings of what we believe is a V-shaped recovery in the housing sector. Over the past several weeks, purchase activity has been 13% higher than it was during the same period a year ago. Listed homes are under contract within about 30 days, indicating a very swift market.
But not everyone who wants to buy a home will be able to participate in this recovery.
REALTORS® across the country are saying there are not enough homes for sale compared to the number of buyers in the marketplace. For first-time homebuyers, the market looks especially tough.
Pent-up housing demand has intensified for several years due to natural population growth. And the low interest rate environment further enlarged the pool of eligible home buyers.
On the supply side, for the past decade or so, homebuilders simply were not building a sufficient number of homes to match the rising housing demand. In my estimation, we were short by 5 to 6 million housing units. That's why home prices have been increasing for so many years.
In the early weeks of the lockdown, the total listings of homes for sale fell significantly, as some listings were pulled off the market because homeowners did not want strangers coming into their homes and some would-be listings that typically show up in spring did not. The housing shortage worsened. That is why, even with buyers taking a pause, home prices continued to rise in March, April and May.
The homeownership rate is naturally higher for those with above median income compared to those with incomes that are below the median (78.8% vs. 51.8%) given their financial resources. Ownership rates are also higher among older households compared to younger ones (over 70% for those aged 45 and over compared to 61.5% for those 35 to 44 and 37.3% for those under 35 years old). But a stark contrast also exists among whites vs. the non-Hispanic population and minority households (nearly 74% for whites, 44% for black households, 48.9% for Hispanics and 59.1% for Asians, Native, Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders). That means that the wealth disparity remains large and will persist at a time of a housing market boom. It is therefore critical to consider measures to boost opportunity or else the howeownership wealth gap will widen even further.
Being able to afford a down payment has consistently been a major hurdle for first-time homebuyers. Our data at NAR shows more family members are assisting with down payments for their children. For those less fortunate to have a wealthy family member, a down payment assistance program or a home buyer tax credit can go a long way to help start up the ladder of ownership and wealth building.
The demand for assistance in itself, however, will not significantly chip away at the gap in ownership and wealth. We also need a huge boost in housing supply, which will relieve the housing shortage and tame the current fast-rising home prices. All barriers to homebuilding, including regulatory burdens — like long and uncertain housing permit approval processes — and zoning laws, need to be seriously reexamined and modified. Based on current conditions, perhaps even offering real estate investors incentives to unload properties onto the market will improve inventory and give more chances at ownership for first-time buyers. A capital gains tax relief for selling investor properties will also certainly help move the dial.
America is an unmatched economic superpower. However, not everyone has participated in the progress. The explicit discrimination of the past and the hidden unconscious biases of today have prevented equal opportunities for minority households. Let's ensure homeownership and the accompanying wealth build-up are open to more Americans.