The four-bedroom house that Ilia Nielsen-Dembe purchased in west Denver earlier this year wasn’t her top choice. The first-time buyer had to settle on a home in a neighborhood with a high crime rate after losing out on bids for five properties in more desirable areas.
“I definitely sacrificed in terms of location,” said Nielsen-Dembe, 33, who lives with her husband and two daughters in the house she bought in April for $184,500. “I had to cross streets that were not ideal in order to get a house.”
While the supply of U.S. homes for sale is at an almost two-year high and price gains are moderating, buyers such as Nielsen-Dembe wouldn’t know it. An inventory crunch for entry-level houses has only worsened during the past year as discounted foreclosures become scarce and cash-paying investors snap up affordable listings to convert to rentals. Properties at the lower end of the market are also the most likely to have underwater mortgages, keeping would-be sellers from moving.
“There is inventory coming on line, albeit slowly,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist for Redfin, a Seattle-based brokerage. “The problem is it’s not equally distributed. There is more turnover at the higher end. At the more affordable end of the spectrum, people are stuck.”
The number of U.S. homes for sale in the bottom third of the market — below $198,000 — fell 17 percent in June compared with a year earlier, according to a Redfin analysis of 31 large U.S. metropolitan areas. The supply was up 3 percent in the middle market and jumped 15 percent at the top, the data show.
Average list prices on the low-end jumped 15 percent in June from a year earlier, and increased 13 percent in the middle and 9 percent at the top, according to Redfin’s analysis of large metro areas.
“If you see prices increasing for reasons other than fundamentals, it’s not good for affordability,” Hui Shan, a housing analyst with New York-based Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said. “A lot of it has to do with investors coming into the market and buying properties. Those are not related to local residents’ incomes going up.”
Some properties aren’t available because homebuyers are taking advantage of the strong rental market and leasing out their previous homes.
Others who want to list their houses can’t. Owners of inexpensive houses are three times more likely than those with costly homes to owe more than their property is worth, according to Zillow (Z) Inc. About a third of mortgaged homes in the bottom price tier were in negative equity in the first quarter, compared with 18 percent in the middle and 11 percent at the top, Zillow data show.
First-time purchasers accounted for 28 percent of all sales of previously owned homes in June, down from about 40 percent historically, according to NAR.
The supply of cheaper new homes “isn’t there because young people are still up against these financial barriers,” Crowe said. “The builders are responding to the customer that is active in the market. It will be at least two years before there is a measurable change in the share of sales going to first-time homebuyers.”
Nielsen-Dembe, a nursing assistant who took on two full-time jobs to qualify for her mortgage, said she wanted to buy because she was tired of the relatively high costs of renting. She expected getting financing to be her biggest challenge.
Instead, she struggled with finding a single-family home in her price range. It took six months because of heated competition. Three of the houses she bid on went instead to cash buyers.
She found sellers who needed a flexible buyer because the house they were moving to wasn’t going to be ready for two months.
“I was willing to wait however long they needed,” she said.