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American real estate’s future: Older, poorer, and more diverse

September 17, 2014, 5:21 PM UTC
Views Of A KB Home Development As Earnings Beat Estimates
A "For Sale" sign is displayed in front of a house at the KB Home's Whisler Ridge housing community in Lake Forest, California, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. KB Home, a U.S. homebuilder that targets first-time buyers, reported third-quarter earnings that beat analyst estimates as prices and sales jumped. Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Patrick Fallon — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Over the past 10 years, we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in real estate prices, a housing crash, the near-total freeze of lending for residential real estate, and a recovery in housing prices that occurred almost as quickly as the preceding crash.

But the real real estate revolution has yet to happen. At the Bipartisan Policy Committee’s Housing Summit in Washington this week, everyone from policy makers, to home builders, to academics are concerned about one thing: America’s coming demographic transformation and how it will change housing in the coming years. Here are three major factors that will fundamentally reshape American real estate:

1. The single largest group of Americans is 23 years old: This should be great news for the economy and the housing industry. After all, these folks are just getting their careers started and, in a couple years, most will settle down and start families. In years past, this impending demographic wave would have home builders and real estate agents salivating for all the business that it would stir up.

But this generation of 23-year-olds is different than any we’ve seen since World War II. While these young adults still want to own a home, there is little certainty that they can afford it. As Andrew Jennings, chief analytics officer at FICO, pointed out, 3 in 10 people with student loans end up defaulting on a loan, be it credit card, a mortgage, or some other liability. While the media may overstate the magnitude of the student debt problem, this fact shows why banks are wary of giving out mortgages to today’s 20-somethings, and why the real estate market might suffer for it.

2. This group of young Americans is more diverse than any previous generation: Not only is the generation now coming of age more in debt than those that preceded it, but other factors make it less likely that they will be as inclined to own a home as their parents, according to demographer Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California.

Myers argues that foreign born Americans are less likely to be homeowners than the native born, and when they do buy they tend to buy at an older age. The Millennial generation is far more diverse and more likely to be foreign born than any previous generation. On top of that, Millennials are growing up in an age of increasing income inequality in which many members of the generation can expect stagnant wages. Myers argues will put a damper on homeownership rates over the next 20 years.

3. The second biggest age group in America is 54 years old. But the housing market won’t be shaped by youth alone. The U.S. is aging, with baby boomers making up a slightly smaller share of the population than their Millennial children. Over the next 20 years, baby boomers will turn into the largest and wealthiest generation of senior citizens the nation has ever seen. What sort of housing they demand and can afford will have a powerful effect on the housing market.

Already, we’re seeing an explosion in the number of age-restricted developments. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the number of these developments under construction doubled between 2012 and 2013. As seniors look for smaller homes in communities with people similar to them, and as their children move towards more urban and walkable areas, that could have a big effect on more traditional suburbs, and the value of suburban homes.