Crisis In The Housing Market
2:55 pm
Tue May 1, 2012

Time To Trade The Lease For A Mortgage?

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 7:44 am

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that in the first quarter of 2012, the American homeownership rate hit its lowest level in 15 years. During the housing boom, millions more Americans bought homes, bumping the rate to nearly 70 percent. Now, that buying spree has been replaced with millions of foreclosures, and most of those gains have been lost.

As the homeownership rate keeps falling, it has also become a very good time to buy a house. Very low interest rates, courtesy of the Federal Reserve, and falling prices are making it even cheaper to buy a house these days. Meanwhile, rents are rising around the country.

Ibeliz Rosa, 34, says she's been noticing the prices. Rosa works for a state adoption agency in Boston and her husband is a police officer. She says her landlord is raising her rent again this summer, up to around $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, and with two young kids, it's starting to get crowded.

"Our rent is like a mortgage right now," Rosa says, "so that also motivated us to get the goal that we wanted, which is a single home."

The couple has been approved for a loan through the nonprofit housing lender NACA and is in the process of buying a three-bedroom ranch house in a suburb outside Boston. Rosa says the house has a nice big backyard.

"I had a yard when I was growing up and I loved it," she says. "So I wanted a yard for the girls to be able to run free."

The American dream of owning a home appears to be alive and well, and, in most places, it's a good time to buy again.

"For big swaths of the United States, it now makes sense to buy and not rent," says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics.

Nobody wants to see a return to the reckless lending days of the housing bubble, which boosted homeownership to an unnatural level, but the question going forward is this: Must the country return to its 1995 pre-bubble rate of around 64 percent homeownership? The rate has already fallen back to 65.4 percent.

NACA CEO Bruce Marks doesn't think so. He says lending standards have gotten too tight since the housing crash. "We've gone too far to the other extreme," he says.

According to Marks, millions of renters who are able to afford rental payments — especially as they've risen — should be able to qualify for home loans. So far, though, foreclosures are outnumbering first-time homebuyers, so the homeownership rate keeps falling.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The rate of home ownership in the U.S. is at its lowest level in 15 years. That news from the Census Bureau this week. During the boom, home ownership rose dramatically to nearly 70 percent, but millions of foreclosures have erased most of those gains.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports on what may be next for the housing market.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: One thing that's striking is that, yes, the home ownership rate keeps falling, but in most of the country it's actually a very good time to buy a house.

IBELIZ ROSA: I noticed the prices. I'm like oh, my God. And everybody kept telling me that it's the time to buy.

ARNOLD: Ibeliz Rosa works for a state adoption agency in Boston. She's 34 years old. Her husband is a police officer.

ROSA: He just said, honey, we're ready.

ARNOLD: Thanks to the Federal Reserve, interest rates are very low right now. So combined with falling prices, that makes it even cheaper to own a house. Meanwhile, around the country, rents are rising. Rosa's landlord is raising her rent again this summer, up to around $1,600 a month for a 2-bedroom apartment.

ROSA: Our rent is like a mortgage right now. That also motivated us to get the goal that we wanted, which is a single home.

ARNOLD: The couple has been approved for a loan through a non-profit housing lender called NACA. And they're in the process of buying a 3-bedroom ranch house in a suburb outside Boston. She says the house has got a nice, big backyard.

ROSA: I had a yard when I was growing up and I loved it. So I wanted a yard for the girls to be able to run free and have them know what it is to be, you know, out there like that. So...

ARNOLD: So the American dream of home ownership appears to be alive and well. And in most places it also makes good financial sense again. Mark Zandi is chief economist of Moody's Analytics.

MARK ZANDI: For big swaths of the United States, it now makes sense to buy and not rent.

ARNOLD: Of course, nobody wants to see a return to the reckless lending days of the housing bubble to boost home ownership to some unnatural level. But the question going forward is must the country return to its rate of around 64 percent home ownership before the bubble? It's already fallen back to 65 and a half.

Do we have to go back to 64?

BRUCE MARKS: Absolutely not.

ARNOLD: Bruce Marks heads up NACA, the non-profit lender who is making the home loan to Ibeliz Rosa. He thinks that lending standards have gotten too tight since the housing crash.

MARKS: We've gone too far to the other extreme.

ARNOLD: Marks says basically millions of renters who are able to afford their rental payments - especially as those payments have risen - he says they should be able to qualify for home loans, too, if they want to. So far, though, foreclosures are outnumbering first time homebuyers and so that keeps pushing the home ownership rate lower.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.