Much has been said, and even more theorized, about why millennials are not buying homes at the same rate their generational predecessors bought when they were new-generation homebuyers themselves. Zillow, however, may have found a real answer in the fact that generation X and baby boomers are largely underwater.
According to Zillow's latest Negative Equity Report, high negative equity among Gen-X homeowners is causing gridlock in the U.S. housing market.
Nearly 43 percent of homeowners between 35 and 49 are underwater on their mortgages. In contrast, only 15 percent of millennial homeowners (those between 20 and 34 years old) and 31 percent of baby boomers (50 to 64 years old) are underwater.
This storehouse of negative equity among the two older generations limits millennials from homeownership mainly because of the ripple effect created when underwater homeowners have trouble listing their properties for sale: baby boomers may not be able to find move-up buyers for their homes because Gen-Xers are stuck with troubled mortgages, Zillow reported. In turn, millennials can't move into the more affordable starter homes currently occupied by Gen Xers. In other words, the very types of houses young first-time buyers would be most able to afford are not hitting the market, and millennials are increasingly getting priced out.
Zillow found that among all homes with a mortgage nationwide, 28 percent that are valued within the bottom third of home values were underwater in the second quarter. This compares to about 16 percent of homes in the middle tier and 9 percent in the top tier.
All ages combined, more than a third of homeowners with a mortgage are effectively underwater and unable to sell their homes for enough profit to comfortably, meet expenses related to selling, and afford a down payment on a new home, the report stated.
Zillow's chief economist, Stan Humphries, said the recession is largely to blame, having most crippled the homes the majority of Gen-X bought.
"On the surface, the housing recession did not overtly impact millennials' housing wealth to the degree it did Generation X and the Baby Boomers," Humphries said. "Most millennials were likely too young to have purchased a home during the bubble years. But as this huge generation begins to consider buying homes, they're entering a market still very much in recovery and far from anyone's definition of normal."
Because so many homes are stuck in negative equity or are effectively underwater, the inventory of homes for sale is severely constrained, Humphries said. This leads to increased competition for homes and the frank reality that many millennials are simply too young and too new to the workforce to have saved up significant money to compete with more established older buyers.
"The reality is, negative equity is part of the new normal," Humphries said. "Finding creative solutions to keep homes affordable, available, and accessible to [millennials] will be critical going forward."