For four years now, the housing market has defied all logic.
A global pandemic didn’t collapse prices, but sent them soaring to new heights. Last year, mortgage rates hit a 23-year high and sales plummeted. Even so, home prices stubbornly kept rising, creating the most unaffordable housing market in generations.
This year offers a new plot twist: More apartments are under construction than at any time in half a century, delivering renters more new apartments than they’ve seen in decades.
So while buying a home continues to be an infuriating experience, marked by high prices, high interest rates and low inventory, renting an apartment is getting easier. That means that unless you plan to live in a house for the next decade or so, now may not be the best time to buy it.
“This is about the worst time to buy a home,” said Christopher Mayer, a real estate professor at Columbia Business School.
Yes, mortgage rates have edged down from their October peak of almost 8 percent, and inventory has ticked up as sellers creep back into the market. But the overall picture hasn’t changed in any meaningful way — and likely won’t anytime soon.
Most economists don’t expect mortgage rates to fall much more this year. The average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 6.6 percent in the third week of January, according to Freddie Mac. And while optimists like Selma Hepp, the chief economist for CoreLogic, think that rates may dip below 6 percent by the end of the year, pessimists like Skylar Olsen, the chief economist at Zillow, think they could inch closer to 7 percent again.
The headwinds are not pleasant. In December, the number of new listings was up 2 percent from a year earlier, but still down almost 15 percent from prepandemic levels, according to Zillow. As for prices, economists expect them to more or less flatten this year. Redfin is predicting that they’ll fall by 1 percent; Freddie Mac, that they’ll increase by just 2.5 percent, half the rate of 2023.
All of this means that anyone buying a home today will likely pay top dollar, at a high borrowing cost, for an asset that may have already peaked.
As Mr. Mayer put it, you’re “effectively buying a luxury good, and it’s not going to pay the same rate of return” as other investments.
The Year of the Renter?
The rental market, however, looks a little different, at least for this year.
Not since 1973 has the United States seen so many apartments — about 1 million nationwide — under construction at once. More than half will be available this year, and almost all are rentals.
Many of these developments broke ground during the pandemic, when developers bet on a market with soaring rents, as people uprooted their lives and moved. But a multifamily building takes time to construct, and these buildings are entering a changed landscape. Renters, squeezed to their financial limits, are no longer signing as many leases, which is driving up vacancies.
Asking rents were basically flat last year across the country, falling by almost 1 percent, to a median of $1,379 a month, according to Apartment List. In New York City, the median asking rent — $3,500 a month — edged up by less than 3 percent in November 2023 from a year earlier, marking the lowest gain since August 2021, according to StreetEasy.
But it’s still a time of crushing housing costs, with rents 19 percent higher than they were before the pandemic, a period that “reset the market to a whole new price level,” said Igor Popov, the chief economist for Apartment List.
Housing and shelter costs were among the largest drivers of inflation in December 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. And last year, the typical renter was cost burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
“Renters need some relief,” said Bess Freedman, the chief executive at Brown Harris Stevens. “People can’t pay these crazy prices. They have to have a home.”
The new housing may at least keep rents from increasing much. Renters should expect deals, with landlords offering months of free rent, gym access or parking. (In December 2023, 33 percent of Zillow’s rental listings included concessions, up from 27 percent in December 2022.)
“For renters, with rising inventory, they will finally feel more empowered to negotiate on rents and concessions” in New York City, said Kenny Lee, a StreetEasy economist.
While these new developments are concentrated in the Sunbelt and the Midwest, they can be seen in other places, too, including exurbs and rural communities, said Robert Dietz, the chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. “It’s really taking place everywhere,” he said.
But the party won’t last long. High interest rates have spooked developers across the country, drying up the construction pipeline, and starts of new multifamily developments are expected to drop 20 percent in 2024, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In New York, where a property tax exemption expired, monthly filings for new foundations, a critical marker of new construction, were already down 78 percent in 2023 from the previous year, according to the Real Estate Board of New York.
“I always think about it in terms of a drought,” Mr. Popov said. “You might have that one rainy season that helps, but you’re still in a drought.”
‘The Math Doesn’t Make Sense’
Last year, many potential sellers stayed put, unwilling to trade pandemic-era mortgage rates for much higher ones on their next home. To make matters worse, the country is short anywhere from 1.5 million to 6.5 million new homes, depending on whom you ask, because developers have not built nearly enough housing since the foreclosure crisis to keep up with a growing population.
The result: Fewer homes were sold in 2023 than at any time since 2014, according to CoreLogic — but not for lack of demand. Despite skyrocketing interest rates, people still wanted to buy homes, and many found themselves navigating a baffling world of bidding wars because there were so few available to buy.
By October 2023, home prices were up 45 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to the Case-Shiller home price index. Combine that price growth with the increase in borrowing costs, and housing is now more unaffordable than at any point since 1984, according to a November report by Intercontinental Exchange, a data company. In the third quarter of 2023, the typical costs of owning a home — mortgage, insurance, property taxes — exceeded $2,000 a month for the first time in history, consuming almost 35 percent of the average wage, according to ATTOM, a data analytics company.
If you consider buying a home as a decision based solely on dollars and cents, the answer is not clear cut — particularly for anyone who may move again in the next few years.
“In some ways, the math doesn’t make sense,” said Lisa Sturtevant, the chief economist at Bright MLS, a multiple listings service for the Mid-Atlantic region.
The math certainly does not make sense for anyone who already owns a home with a 3 percent mortgage interest rate. Move from one home to another of around the same value, and it will cost thousands of dollars in higher interest payments over the years.
First-time buyers are also facing difficult math, as rents are currently low compared to mortgage payments. Buy a $400,000 house today, with $80,000 down and a 30-year mortgage at a 6.6 percent interest rate, and interest payments alone (not including taxes or maintenance) will cost almost $20,000 the first year.
But suppose you find an apartment at the median rent — $1,379 a month? A year of renting will cost you $16,550.
Put that $80,000 down payment in a mutual fund or the stock market, and you will likely get a higher rate of return on your investment.
“If I invest the money in a home today, given how high prices are, I’m really saying I’m expecting home prices to go up a lot,” Mr. Mayer said. “I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation.”
Eyes on the Forever Home
But people don’t buy homes the same way they buy stocks.
A home isn’t just an investment — it’s a source of stability and a place to live your life, and maybe raise children. There are significant tax benefits, too, especially if you own the home for many years.
A former student of Mr. Mayer’s was moving to the Bay Area for a new job, and asked for advice. Given the exorbitant price of housing in the area, the student wanted to know if it made sense to buy. The rate of return on her investment didn’t look favorable in the short-term, but she had other factors to consider — where her children would go to school and finding a home in a neighborhood she liked, with a manageable commute.
In other words, she had to consider her life. Mr. Mayer advised her to buy.
Other buyers and sellers seem to be making a similar calculation. During the second week of January, mortgage applications for home purchases were up 9 percent from the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
As Dr. Sturtevant, of Bright MLS, pointed out, “It’s not always about the math.”
“For some homeowners, the math may look challenging,” she continued, but other factors come into play: Perhaps they need another bedroom for a growing family, “or they need to move to be near an aging parent or a change in job.”
After 18 solid months of high interest rates, buyers and sellers may decide to make a change anyway, she said: “I think 2024 is the year of ‘life happens.’”
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