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For the last few years, homebuyers have done battle with some specific challenges: fewer homes to choose from, rising prices and increasing competition with buyers willing to go to great lengths to close the deal on the homes they want.
That’s a huge change from the conditions buyers and owners faced just a few years ago. For several years beginning in 2007, home values dropped nationwide and millions of homeowners suddenly owed more on their homes than they could sell them for—if they could sell them at all. Over the last four years, home values and the market have slowly recovered.
The latest reports show that home prices now exceed levels set at the housing market’s previous peak in 2006. Are we looking at another housing bubble? There’s no way to know for sure until the bubble bursts. Either way, it’s worth understanding the decades-long trends that led up to the housing meltdown—and refresh our memories about the lessons we learned during those tough times.
A Quick Home-Buying History
Let’s start by looking at the U.S. Census Bureau figures for housing prices over the decades. In 1950, the median home price was just $7,354. Wow! Fast-forward 50 years, and the median home price was $119,600. This year, the median existing home price reported by the National Association of Realtors surpassed the record of $227,100 set in 2006 to $232,500.
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Adjusting those numbers for inflation gives us some perspective. The median price for a home in 1950 in inflation-adjusted dollars was $44,600. Compared to the current median price, that’s an increase of almost $188,000 in 66 years!
One driver of home prices is size. In 1950, the average home size was less than 1,000 square feet with two bedrooms and one bath. By 1970, the average home was 1,500 square feet and included a third bedroom and another half-bath.
Today, the average new home is two stories and 2,500 square feet with two or more baths and at least three bedrooms. And all this is in spite of the fact that family size decreased from 3.37 members in 1950 to 2.54 members in 2015.
So how were we able to buy these bigger (and bigger) homes? For the most part, changes in the mortgage industry allowed homebuyers to borrow more and spread their payments out over a longer period of time.
In the 1930s, mortgages had variable interest rates, required high down payments, and only had five- to 10-year terms. The maximum amount a homebuyer could borrow was 50% of a home’s value.
A series of changes brought about by the Great Depression and World War II resulted in the long-term, fixed-rate mortgage we’re familiar with today. By the mid-1950s, the maximum mortgage term was 30 years and buyers could finance up to 95% of their home’s value.
Over time, mortgage lending standards loosened even more. In the years leading up to the housing bubble in 2007, homebuyers could borrow more than their home’s value with a low or no down payment. The adjustable-rate mortgage came back into popularity with buyers who didn’t qualify for fixed-rate loans.
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What Did We Learn?
And this is where we learn our lesson: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Lenders and home builders are in the housing industry to make money. They changed their practices and products to give us what we said we wanted. We fell victim to our own stuffitis and bought homes that cost too much, and we borrowed too much money to do it.
When you’re ready to buy a new home, remember that a bigger house doesn’t mean you’ll be happier. You’ll get the most satisfaction out of living within your means. Whether that means 1,000 square feet or 5,000, only you can decide. Keep your stuffitis in check, and you’ll make the right call.
How to Buy on a Budget
Shopping for a home with a budget in mind can be tricky. How do you know where to look or whether you’re getting the most value for your money? An experienced real estate agent is the key to finding the right home for your family.
Work with an agent who is an expert in your market and knows where to find the best deals. And keep in mind that home prices aren’t the only things that have changed since the 1950s. The whole home-buying process is more complicated, so you’ll benefit by working with a professional who knows the ropes and can help you keep costs down.
If you already work with an agent you trust, great! Happy house hunting! But if you’re looking for a great agent, we can help you find one in your area.