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Why availability is the new affordability when it comes to home buying

Ask the Expert Buying News
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. Globe Staff/Adobe

Realtors and housing experts are warning of a difficult spring for first-time home buyers. Prices had climbed for seven straight years before skyrocketing during the pandemic. With buyer demand far outpacing the number of homes for sale, median home prices were up 12.9 percent in December compared with the year before, marking the 106th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains, according to the National Association of Realtors.

And incomes haven’t kept pace with those fast-rising home prices. Even before the pandemic, “prices were about 4.3 times higher than the median household income,’’ said Alex Hermann, senior research analyst at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. That basic measure of housing affordability, already at its worst level since 2006, almost certainly rose again in 2020. “Nationally, price-to-income ratios have risen for eight straight years,’’ he said.

Realtors are watching prices slip out of reach for their first-time buyers in real time. “I’ve seen properties that were listed just a few months ago at one price come back on the market in January or February at a higher price, so that tells you everything you need to know,’’ said Alexander Jean-Baptiste, in-house realtor with the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. “It can be a little disheartening to watch, right before our very eyes, people getting priced out not over the course of years, but over the course of months, or even a matter of weeks.’’

In the Boston area, even a household earning $100,000 could afford to buy only 23 percent of the homes listed for sale in December, according to NAR senior economist Nadia Evangelou. That calculation assumes a 20 percent down payment, and an affordable mortgage payment is defined as one that doesn’t exceed a quarter of a household’s income.

And yet, by some measures, homes have actually gotten more affordable since 2018. How can that be?

Interest rates.

“The cost of a $400,000 mortgage can drop $220 a month when the rate falls from 4 percent to 3 percent,’’ Evangelou said. And average rates on a 30-year mortgage hit record lows in 2020.

“We’ve seen a long-term decline in interest rates going back to the ’70s, especially in the last year,’’ Hermann said. In July, the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage on Freddie Mac’s Primary Mortgage Market Survey dipped below 3 percent for the first time in its nearly 50-year history. Those record-low rates allow buyers to purchase a more expensive home without any change to their monthly mortgage payment.

In fact, when you look not just at home prices, but at the monthly cost of homeownership when adjusted for inflation, the mortgage payment on a median-priced American home is pretty much the same today as it was 20 years ago, if not lower. “According to our Housing Affordability Index, housing is more affordable now compared to 1980 and 2000,’’ Evangelou said.

For example, the median price of a Massachusetts single-family home was $460,000 in 2020. With a 10 percent down payment, a 30-year mortgage at 3.11 percent (the average rate over the course of 2020) would carry a monthly payment of $1,770, before taxes and insurance.

Back in 2000, the state’s median home price was $185,700, but the average rate on a 30-year mortgage was 8.05 percent, closer to the long-term average. That mortgage would have cost $1,232 a month — or $1,852 in today’s dollars, after adjusting for inflation. Even the bargain home prices of the early 1980s were offset somewhat by double-digit interest rates that seem more akin to credit card rates of today.

“The fact that the rates are low right now, that is basically the only good thing we have going for us as home buyers,’’ said Dana Bull, a realtor at Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty in Marblehead.

But that mortgage affordability, however welcome, comes with a caveat, Hermann said. “Higher home prices are often going to require a larger down payment, which is often the biggest barrier to accessing homeownership, especially for first-time buyers with low or moderate incomes,’’ he said. And most measurements of home affordability are missing that key data point: the ability to make a down payment. “That’s the biggest blind spot in these measures.’’

While low down-payment loans are available for first-time home buyers, a $50,000 price jump can quickly add thousands of dollars in upfront costs to a home purchase. And first-time buyers with scant down payments can have a harder time winning bidding wars against buyers with more cash on hand.

“A lot of times sellers want to go with a sure thing over the person who has to get more through lending,’’ said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin. “And if the price escalates, and you have to come up with more of a down payment, but you’re already at your limit … you’ll get priced out faster than somebody who has more savings.’’

Buyers who are able to waive inspection or financing contingency clauses also have an advantage in multiple-offer situations, Fairweather said. And that further favors buyers with enough savings to absorb the “hidden risks’’ of a competitive housing market. “If something comes up during the home inspection that they have to pay for, or if their bank decides that the price is too high and it doesn’t get appraised at the price they paid for it, then they have to pay more out of pocket in cash,’’ she said.

‘A lot of times sellers want to go with a sure thing over the person who has to get more through lending.’ — Daryl Fairweather

Bull said availability has overtaken affordability as the big concern among her buyers. “The main talking point now is there’s nothing to buy,’’ she said. “People are willing, and able, in a lot of these situations, to spend $900,000 or a million dollars on a property that they deem worth it. But that’s the issue, finding a property that’s worth it when there’s nothing to choose from.’’

“It’s a hyper seller’s market right now,’’ said Steve Medeiros, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. With less than a month’s supply of homes on the market in December, Medeiros said — down from two months in December 2019 and a 4½-month supply in 2015 — there are more buyers than inventory, and simply being able to afford a home doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful in purchasing one. “I just had a listing, we had seven offers on the property,’’ he said. “But only one person can buy it.’’

“It’s tough out there,’’ said Adam Rosenbaum, realtor at Century 21 Adams KC in Arlington. “Yes, rates are low, which means greater purchasing power — but that’s true for everyone. Supply and demand still rule.’’ Rosenbaum has younger clients who have submitted three offers over the asking price but have yet to land a winning bid.

Medeiros said there’s hope on the horizon in the form of new construction, though it will take a while before enough new housing hits the market to relieve price pressure. New housing starts and construction permits have recovered from an early pandemic dip, and the long pushed-for “Housing Choice’’ measures in the state’s recently passed economic stimulus bill will eventually boost inventory by encouraging denser development near MBTA stations and allowing towns to approve new projects and accessory dwelling units by a simple majority vote.

One recent development is helping some home buyers right now, though. Those who expect to continue working remotely at least part of the time going forward are now able to consider more distant — and more affordable — areas. “I’m now regularly working in towns that I previously rarely visited,’’ Rosenbaum said.

The pandemic push toward open, suburban spaces has also improved affordability in downtown Boston. “The best spot to be in right now is buying in a complex in the city,’’ Bull said. “The worst spot is if you’re trying to buy a single-family in an entry-level to mid-level price bracket outside the city.’’

Whatever the larger trends are, however, affordability ultimately comes down to whether individual buyers can afford the home they want. And against a pandemic that has laid waste to entire industries while buoying others, that varies dramatically. While millions of Americans have lost work or income in the past year, others have kept drawing steady salaries. Even as many in the first group are struggling to make rent, much less to save for a down payment, some white-collar workers have managed to pad their savings in a year with minimal commuting or vacation expenses.

Jean-Baptiste said some of his clients have had to put their home searches on hiatus due to a job loss or other misfortune. Meanwhile, others have gone back to their lenders and discovered they now qualify for a larger loan due to lower interest rates. That’s a bright spot, Jean-Baptiste said. “Instead of being at the back end of a multiple-offer situation, now they’re toward the top — they’re actually getting the properties,’’ he said.

Bull is also surprised by how fluid people’s budgets have become and how what they consider “affordable’’ can completely change by the week. In the past, she said, buyers had a set amount they could afford to pay each month, and it took a lot to change that. But between the scrapped vacations, postponed weddings, and shifting child-care plans of the pandemic, people’s finances have been in greater flux, often resulting in extra savings.

And more often than not, “they’re willing to put that money towards a home,’’ Bull said. “Because that’s the most important thing in everybody’s lives right now — being at home.’’

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.