Who is the first-time homebuyer? They’re older, earn more, and probably don’t have kids
The first-time homebuyer in 2023 looks a little different than they did when baby boomers were buying their starter homes. Thanks to higher home prices and middling inventory, new owners tend to be older, earn more, and are likelier to be single or childless than in the past.
That’s according to the 2023 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, published by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) on Monday. NAR has put the report out annually since 1981; this year, it is based on responses from nearly 7,000 buyers who purchased a primary residence between July 2022 and June 2023.
It finds that the typical first-time buyer was 35 years old this year. That’s the second-oldest age in four decades of NAR’s data—second only to last year’s 36—and higher than when many baby boomers bought their first homes. Despite mortgage rates hitting 18% by late 1981, some 45% of boomers were able to buy their first home between the ages of 25 and 34, according to the Berkeley Economic Review.
Reflecting the increasing unaffordability of the housing market, they also earn more than first-time buyers of the past, reporting a median income of $95,900—up from $71,000 last year—and their typical down payment was 8%, the highest since 1997, when it was 9%.
They are also more likely to be single, much less likely to have children, and significantly more diverse. In fact, NAR’s report finds just 52% of first-time buyers were married, compared to 63% of repeat buyers, and 36% have a child under the age of 18 living at home, down from 44% last year.
There are also more of them than there were last year. After falling to a record-low 26% of buyers in 2022, first-timers made a comeback this year, comprising 32% of sales. While a promising trend for the potential first-time buyers sitting on the sideline, that’s still well below the 38% average seen since 1981, and the fourth lowest share in that timeframe.
The report highlights how millennials are still fighting to break into the housing market—no matter how much it costs or how long it takes, the report shows, whether that means cutting spending on luxury goods and entertainment or even pulling money from a 401(k), stocks, and cryptocurrency. In fact, nearly a quarter of first-time homebuyers relied on these types of assets to buy a house, and another 23% used a gift or loan from friends or family for the down payment.
Even though mortgage rates are hovering around 8% and home prices have been on a seven-month streak of increases, one thing is evident: millennials are just plain tired of waiting for a better housing market to buy. In fact, 60% of first-time homebuyers said the primary reason for purchasing a home was the desire to own a home of their own, per NAR’s report, as opposed to moving for work or to be closer to friends or family.
“The desire to own a home has never really gone away,” Maureen McDermut, a realtor with Sotheby’s International-Montecito, tells Fortune. “I believe this is why, despite higher interest rates and home prices, many are still entering the market.”
First-time homebuyers are older than past generations. And they’re tired of waiting
The trend of older first-time buyers isn’t likely to change in the immediate future. Because housing market conditions are the least affordable they’ve been in decades, younger generations find themselves stuck—unable to afford a down payment on a median-priced home or the hearty mortgage payments that come with 8% rates. That means fewer 20-somethings are able to break into the housing market, driving up the age of first-time homebuyers.
“Many younger millennials and Gen Zers are saving up by staying home with their parents or even renting with friends to put together a down payment on a home,” says McDermut. “As ‘starter’ homes have largely gone by the wayside, it is almost essential to do this for most.”
Plus millennials are tired of standing on the sidelines. They’re coming into their peak earning years, and want to start family planning.
First-time homebuyers have different motivations than repeat and “move-up” buyers, Dan Green, founder and CEO of Homebuyer.com, a mortgage company dedicated to first-time homebuyers, tells Fortune. They’re driven by the 5 “D’s”: diamonds, diapers, diplomas, desk change, and dogs, he says.
“Whether you’re getting married or having a baby, graduating from school, moving for a new job, or wanting a yard for a dog—first-time buyers have put all these reasons on hold for the last two years,” Green says. “You can’t put your life off forever.”
Rent versus buy mentality
The age-old debate of whether to rent or buy is not lost on millennials—and it’s gotten even more complicated as rental prices have increased in tandem with the cost of buying. While buying doesn’t look to be the same “deal” it was before, many are ready to take the plunge anyway.
“Most first-time homebuyers are those in their 30s looking to stay put for a while and would rather hedge their bets by putting money into real estate versus the market and paying rent,” Adie Kriegstein, a realtor with Compass Real Estate in New York City, tells Fortune. “Owning a home is a better investment than renting in the long run, and they are willing to jump into the market when they can negotiate on the price and lock in a rate between 7 [to] 8% before they rise more.”
Of course, the calculation depends on a number of factors, particularly location. The median-priced home in the U.S. is $311,500, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, but that figure can vary greatly from market to market.
Take Los Angeles, for example, which had a median home price of more than $417,000 in August, according to Case-Shiller. Assuming today’s 7.4% mortgage rate and a 20% down payment, that buyer would have a monthly mortgage payment of more than $2,300. However, the average rent in Los Angeles is $2,742, according to RentCafe, making buying a house cheaper than renting.
On the flipside, the entry-level home in New York City can be much higher than a rental payment, Kriegstein says. It often takes buyers there longer to save up for the down payment.
“Every housing market is a niche,” she says. “As such, the amount needed for a down payment and the median price for a home varies widely.”