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Tough housing market is luring buyers without kids and higher incomes

Would-be home buyers are battling high prices and high interest rates, but some are finding a way to make it work.
AFP via Getty Images
Would-be home buyers are battling high prices and high interest rates, but some are finding a way to make it work.

Anyone shopping for a home right now has to contend with a double whammy of high prices and high interest rates. To make matters worse, there aren't a lot of homes on the market to choose from.

A survey by mortgage giant Fannie Mae found 85% of Americans think it's a bad time to buy a home.

Still, some people are taking the plunge. First-time buyers accounted for nearly a third of home sales during the 12 months ending in June, according to an annual snapshot from the National Association of Realtors. A record 70% of all buyers didn't have children under 18 living at home.

Lance Zaldivar bought his first home over the summer, not long after getting out of the Marine Corps. He socked away money for the down payment during his last deployment in Kosovo. His fiancee, Jasmin Benitez, also had some savings from her job as a nurse practitioner.

"My fiancee is a little pickier than I am, and at this point now I'm glad that she was," Zaldivar says. "She was looking for a little bit of a yard. A little larger square footage inside the house. Somewhere that we can raise a family in."

Paying up front to lock in a lower mortgage rate

The couple found a three-bedroom house in Montgomery County, Texas, north of Houston, for $245,000 — well below the national average.

Their mortgage rate will be 6.25%, but they paid additional money paid up front to get a lower rate for the first two years, while Zaldivar finishes his bachelors degree.

"I was real happy about that," Zaldivar says. "That eased my concern, compared to some of the other interest rates I've seen."

Average mortgage rates have climbed even higher in the months since Zaldivar bought, approaching 8% this fall before settling back to 7.5% last week, according to Freddie Mac.

Sellers are holding tight to their low-rate homes

Rising interest rates have put homes out of reach for many would-be buyers. They've also discouraged people who already own homes from selling and giving up their cheaper loans. That's a big reason there aren't many "For Sale" signs out there right now.

Kristina Dunlap says there wasn't much to choose from when she and her husband began looking for a house this year. But after three years of renting in Nashville, the couple was determined to buy a place.

"We calculated how much we had spent in rent over three years essentially and I think that number was a lot scarier than what the interest rates are right now," she says.

Dunlap is a freelance marketer and her husband Eric is a construction manager. They thought of buying a fixer-upper, but decided that was more work than they wanted. Instead, they opted for a newly-built home near Springfield, about 25 minutes north of Nashville.

"The whole neighborhood is still under construction actually at the moment. We don't even have paved roads currently," Kristina Dunlap says.

New homes are a bigger share of sales

About 13% of homes sold this past year were newly built, according to the Realtors' report, up from 12% the year before.

Like many successful buyers, Dunlap made tradeoffs — moving farther from the central city and giving up the bonus room she was hoping for. She did get the open floor plan and the two-car garage she wanted, as well as a yard for her dog, Kujo.

"The yard was a must," Dunlap says. "When he gets — I call them the zoomies-- When he gets those twice a day, we just send him out there and let him run it all out."

The purchase price was just under $350,000 so the Dunlaps needed about $30,000 to cover the 6% down payment and closing costs.

Down payment is the hard part and average income of buyers is at a record high

According to the Realtors' report, coming up with a down payment is the biggest challenge for many first-time buyers, especially those who are saddled with high rent and student loans.

The average income for all home-buyers hit a record high: $107,000. That highlights the challenges that middle-income people face in buying a home.

"Down payment, finding that right home — inventory is still incredibly tight — We know that they have a hard time, especially finding an affordable property," says Jessica Lautz, deputy chief economist at the Realtors' association. "But these homebuyers are somehow making it work and getting in there."

Lance Zaldivar and his fiancee moved into their new house in June and wasted no time unpacking. While the average buyer plans to stay in a house for 15 years, Zaldivar plan to keep his home much longer.

"Whenever we do have a family, grandkids, great grandkids, they can always come over to our place, and it will be home for the Zaldivars," he says.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.