Housing market affordability is so strained that couples want down payment cash rather than a wedding gift
Oliver and Cassie Nilsson’s love story started in 2012 at an Outback Steakhouse on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Cassie was a 21-year-old server who lived with her parents, and Oliver was 18 years old and still in high school. Resistant to moving with her parents to Alabama, Cassie soon asked Oliver to move in with her, and so started their journey of moving back and forth across the state—whether for school or work.
Oliver went on to complete a couple years at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, but then the couple moved to Orlando so he could finish out school at the University of Central Florida where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering. Meanwhile, Cassie worked at an orthodontics and dental office as an assistant. They lived and rented an apartment in Orlando for about four-and-a-half years before moving to Tampa, where Oliver had landed his first post-grad job.
“Our expectation was as soon as I graduated college we would buy a house,” Oliver says. “We wanted to get a townhouse because we want a little yard for dogs. But we quickly realized that was not on the table for us, especially with the interest rate being so high.”
Knowing that they wanted to eventually own a home, Oliver, Cassie and their two dachshunds moved in with Oliver’s parents—a stint originally planned to last just three months. But when the couple, who make a combined salary of about $100,000, realized the amount of money it would require to make a down payment on a home, that snowballed into eight months under the same roof as their in-laws.
During this time, the couple was also planning their wedding. They had moved in with Oliver’s parents in January 2023, and the following month had a Las Vegas elopement, which included an Elvis impersonator and cost about $5,000. To help save for down payment on their home, the couple added a “first home fund”—their one and only request on their wedding registry.
First home funds are a trend growing in popularity for millennial and Gen Z couples. In fact, 16% of couples who registered in 2022 established a home fund, says Cathryn Haight, editor of gifting and stationery at The Knot, a wedding planning site and vendor marketplace.
“We have been lucky enough to live together for many years,” their wedding registry reads. “In that time we have all we need for the inside, now we are saving the ‘outside.’ There is no obligation to contribute, but if you were thinking of getting us anything this is our dream. If you are coming to our wedding, that is the greatest gift we could ask of you!”
Home funds have been around as early as 2019, Haight says.
“But they’ve really picked up steam in the last two years,” Haight says. “The category shows no signs of slowing down. While some guests may prefer their cash gifts to go toward a celebratory treat like a honeymoon dinner, there’s something so special about a wedding contribution helping new spouses reach another meaningful milestone: homeownership.”
The Knot does not take a percentage of cash registry gifts and it is free to start a fund, link a bank account, and share your registry, Haight adds. First home funds can be especially valuable for couples now that housing affordability is increasingly strained. For reference, the average cost of a wedding in the U.S. in 2022 was $30,000, according to The Knot.
“Most of the first-time homebuyers I am working with are faced with challenges of affordability and competition,” Donna Incorvaja, Cassie and Oliver’s real estate agent at RelatedISG Realty, tells Fortune. “It’s not that they can’t afford to buy, but that what they can afford in today’s market is very different from what a younger generation could buy three-to-four years ago.”
The money contributed to the first home fund, along with the money they saved during the time spent living with Oliver’s parents, made possible their dream to buy a home. In early August, they closed on a $292,000 one-bedroom condo in the Tarpon River neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale.
“Honest to God, it was this [the first home fund] and his parents letting us stay there,” Cassie says. “We would have never been able [to buy]. We would have rented our whole life.”
Even with a down payment saved up, it was still challenging to find what they were looking for within an affordable range. Finding a home that was in good enough shape to move into without extensive renovations was tough, too, Cassie adds.
“Every night when we would look [at homes], we would notice that everything is basically out of our price limit,” Oliver says. Indeed, some communities required that the couple put 25% down of the purchase price, which could amount to about $75,000—an amount that they were not prepared to pay. It was a tedious process finding a home that would work for them, Oliver says, adding that some communities wouldn’t accept pets.
“We didn’t want to settle,” Cassie says. “We already had been living in his parents house, so it was either going to be a couple more weeks or a couple more months.”
Cassie and Oliver ended up purchasing the 900-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath condo, which was listed at $300,000 for $292,000 at a 7% mortgage rate. They also pay about $600 extra in HOA fees each month, which brings their total housing cost per month to about $2,300.
While most housing markets are in the midst of an affordability crunch first-time home buyers now represent 50% of all home buyers in the U.S., Nicole Bachaud, a senior economist with Zillow, tells Fortune.
“Even though affordability in this housing market is challenging, first time buyers are getting creative to make it work with 60% of first-time buyers using at least two sources to finance their down payment—typically savings and gifts from family or friends,” she says.
Oliver and Cassie’s advice for first-time home buyers? “Don’t give up.”
“It’s hard to give advice when you know, a lot of this is possible due to our family,” Cassie says. “We’d never be able to buy this place with the help of our family,” Oliver adds.