Four market headwinds facing first-time buyers

To find success, prospective buyers must be persistent, patient and preapproved.

SHARE Four market headwinds facing first-time buyers

Freedomz -

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all phases of the home buying journey.

Today’s first-time homebuyers find themselves flailing in cross-currents:

Fearing health risks, homeowners have delayed putting their homes up for sale, limiting supply. All-time low mortgage rates have encouraged even more buyers to leap into a fiercely competitive market.

Meanwhile, tighter mortgage standards make it a bit harder for even well-prepared buyers to get loans. Average home prices rise higher, faster — beyond the affordable range for first-timers.

These public health and market forces are amplifying affordability issues for first-time homebuyers, threatening to delay their dreams of homeownership.

To find success, prospective buyers must be persistent, patient and preapproved.

NerdWallet450px.jpg is a personal finance website and app.

Sellers slam their doors on buyers

Just as the spring home buying season was gearing up, word came that the coronavirus could spread from person to person. Rather than risk exposure, would-be sellers withheld their homes from the market.

“People pulled back because they didn’t want people in their homes,” says Terri Robinson, a Realtor with RE/MAX Select Properties in Ashburn, Virginia.

As sellers sidelined themselves, the inventory of homes for sale stayed relatively flat instead of zooming upward. In June, 1.54 million existing homes were for sale, a 20% drop from the housing inventory a year before, according to the National Association of Realtors.

A skimpy inventory isn’t a problem when demand for homes is low. But even in the pandemic’s early days, homebuyers out-numbered willing sellers — and the Federal Reserve was about to motivate even more people to go house shopping.

Lower interest rates incite competition

The spread of the coronavirus triggered stay-at-home orders, which spiked unemployment, which led to a recession. Congress and the Federal Reserve firehosed money at the economic downturn to extinguish it.

In March, the Fed began buying billions of dollars’ worth of mortgage-backed securities to force mortgage rates lower. The central bank succeeded. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.86% in January, according to NerdWallet’s daily survey.

By August it averaged 3.08%, and has remained low since. The dramatic decline gave borrowers more buying power. The prospect of bagging a bargain inspired would-be homebuyers to dip their toes into the market.

But these eager buyers discovered that a lot of other people had the same idea.

There weren’t enough homes for sale to accommodate them. When buyers toured homes and made offers, they discovered they were pitted against one another.

“The competition for those homes becomes much greater,” Robinson says. “That’s where the struggle is.”

She recently closed a sale on a condo that attracted 12 offers in four days. It sold for $15,000 more than the asking price. It’s the type of home frequently bought by a first-time homebuyer — and the competition for those homes is intimidating.

Lenders become choosier

Spooked by coronavirus-related unemployment, mortgage lenders adopted stricter lending standards. Some lenders now require mortgage borrowers to fill out a COVID-19 certification in which they attest that they expect to make the monthly payments.

In another sign of tighter lending requirements, the average credit score on a closed mortgage was 750 in July, compared to 738 in January. That’s a sizable jump in just six months.

Lenders have become more conservative with mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration as well. Some lenders won’t approve FHA loans for borrowers with credit scores below 620, says Jim Sahnger, a mortgage loan officer for C2 Financial Corp. in South Florida.

Such a policy disproportionately affects first-time homebuyers, who benefit from the FHA’s more relaxed qualification requirements.

Lower rates can’t salvage affordability

Combine a small selection of homes, a rate-induced influx of home shoppers and stricter lending requirements.

The result? Home prices that rise faster than incomes.

Home affordability for first-time buyers has fallen this year, according to NerdWallet’s most recent Metro Affordability Report. A home is generally considered affordable if it costs no more than three times annual income.

But most first-timers have to stretch well past that budgetary ideal, according to the report. House prices rose nationally from 4.5 times typical first-time homebuyer income in the first quarter to 4.7 times in the second quarter.

First-time buyers tend to make smaller down payments than repeat homebuyers, so they often borrow a higher percentage of the home’s price. That results in larger monthly mortgage payments, further reducing affordability.

What first-time homebuyers can do

First-time homebuyers should keep these tips in mind as they navigate the unexpectedly hot housing market:

Be persistent. Robinson stresses to her clients that they might have to make offers on a few homes before they succeed. As clients internalize this message, they’re more resilient in the face of disappointment.

Identify the bottom line. Robinson asks buyers she represents, “If you were to lose this house over $500, would you be upset?” If they answer yes, she asks if they want to raise the offer by $500. Then she asks again, until she finds how much the client is willing to pay. That amount might not be the initial offer, but by establishing an upper limit upfront, the client is better prepared to walk away from a bidding war.

Get preapproved to gain a competitive advantage. When home sellers weigh multiple offers, they favor deals that are likely too close. That’s why they favor buyers with mortgage preapprovals, Sahnger says.

Consider waiting out this weird housing market. Some buyers might conclude that it’s prudent to hold off until the recession ends and their employment is more predictable. That gives them time to bundle up a bigger down payment — and maybe snag a more expensive house.

The Latest
Notes: Cody Bellinger hit on the field Tuesday, taking a step in his injury rehab.
Tuesday’s storms came more than a week after a record 27 tornadoes battered the Chicago area July 15.
Jonathan Byars, 26, carried out six robberies and two attempted robberies in 2019 and 2020, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
He is credited with helping develop the English take on urban, Chicago-style R&B that played an important role in the blues revival of the late 1960s.