Indeed, a new report by the Bank of America Institute suggests that homeownership is a top concern for younger generations: Some 60% of Gen Z respondents, and nearly 60% of millennials, said they think homeownership is more important than it was during their parents’ generation. In a separate BofA survey, respondents cited owning a home as their number one signal of financial success, and fifth on the list of success overall, ahead of options like “building a family” and “career fulfillment.”
Despite its importance, this marker of adulthood is ever further out of reach, especially for older millennials (aged 35–45) who face a “bigger financial burden” with the largest share of outstanding student loans and the fastest rise in credit card delinquencies, according to BofA’s analysis.
“While it’s tricky to draw a direct comparison between whether millennials or their parents face more barriers to homeownership given the numerous variables at play, it’s fair to say that millennials are faced with their own unique set of challenges,” Matt Vernon, BofA head of consumer lending, tells Fortune, noting that high home prices and interest rates rank at the top of millennials’ list of challenges.
That very inaccessibility is likely driving this generation to recognize that buying a house is a critical step for building wealth.
“While their parents and grandparents may have been able to do so in more favorable markets, millennials may perceive that building equity through the purchase of a home is especially important as inflation continues to keep living expenses high,” Vernon says.
Several other housing market experts, economists, and millennial executives shared their own theories about the younger generation’s real estate obsession.
One major possibility: The heat is on from their peers, and social media is making it worse.
“On average, especially in the tech space, millennials are making more than their parents did at their comparative age and are feeling the pressure of society to buy a house, or at minimum, a condo,” Elena Nunez Cooper, the 33-year-old CEO of Ascend PR, tells Fortune. “On social media, a plethora of ‘instant millionaires’ showing off their ‘perfect lives’ with big houses, supercars, and seemingly unlimited wealth pressures millennials to go big or go home.”
“Even if a millennial prefers to stay off social media, there is a constant flow of media that pushes the idea that owning a home as a thirtysomething is a must, and if you do not have a home, you must be failing at life,” Cooper adds.
Few ways for millennials to grow wealth
The desire for cold, hard property likely also reflects this generation’s coming of age, starting with the Global Financial Crisis, the sluggish recovery from it, then the COVID-19 pandemic and the highest inflation in 40 years. Even though millennials may be making more than their parents at the same age, they’re spending more too. Cost of living has only increased, student loans and other debts keep piling up, and inflation doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon.
In 2020, the median millennial household made $71,566, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But that figure obscures the fact that today’s households have more adults working than in previous decades. Despite the rise of the median, incomes have become more unequal, meaning that the lowest earners are struggling to keep up. In the meantime, housing is taking up an ever-growing share of the budget. A recent Guardian report found that, through the 1990s, a typical homebuyer could expect to pay three times their annual income for a home; by this year, that figure had ballooned to 5.3. It’s no wonder that most Americans doubt today’s younger generations will do better than their parents economically.
Indeed, some experts suggest that millennials yearn for homeownership as a reprieve from runaway rental prices. Since the start of the pandemic, rents are up by more than 20% nationwide, adding more than $340 to monthly bills, according to Rent.com’s November report.
“This situation puts pressure on millennials to buy homes early to avoid being priced out of the market,” says Michael Vestuto, a Las Vegas realtor with two decades of experience. “Early homeownership allows them to build equity, paving the way for future financial independence and wealth accumulation through real estate. This contrasts with the less competitive environment their parents encountered, making early homeownership less critical for them.”
Housing in one of very few remaining ways for millennials to meaningfully build wealth. Millennials see buying a home as a valuable investment instead of a financial liability, Matthew Ricci, a 15-year mortgage lending veteran, tells Fortune.
“Millennials are much more engaged with financial investing and independence than their parents’ generation,” says Ricci, a home loan specialist at Churchill Mortgage, citing online investment tools and other strategies that give this generation a better understanding of growing their net worth through investments—including real estate.
A recent survey by Chase shows that while 90% of millennials and Gen Zers see owning a home as a “smart investment,” more than half are open to coownership. We’re already starting to see this trend more in millennial homes, where friends and family are buying homes together.
Sure, some millennials are drawn to the idea of a white picket fence and nesting, but other members of this generation strictly see homebuying as a smart financial move. Indeed, there has been an increase in the practice of “house hacking,” or renting out part or all of a home for extra income, a November Zillow report shows.
Millennials and Gen Zers are doing this in order to afford sky-high home prices and steep mortgage rates. More than half of these buyers view house hacking as “very” or “extremely” important in being able to afford a home, compared to 39% of homebuyers of all ages.
Still, not all economists are buying the generational narrative. LendingTree Senior Economist Jacob Channel argues that while today’s young people certainly could be facing greater pressures, BofA’s study isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples. That’s because it’s difficult to nail down how members of different generations actually compare to one another at the same age, he says.
“Just because a group feels like they currently want to do something, like own a home, more than another group did sometime in the past, that doesn’t mean that they actually do,” he tells Fortune. However, “it’s nonetheless still clear that homeownership is still important to most Americans, regardless of which generation they come from.”
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