Weak Wage Growth Is Bigger Problem for Housing Market Than Student Debt

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Tuesday, 18 February 2014 07:51

The Washington Post had a somewhat confused front page piece claiming that student debt burdens are a major obstacle to the recovery of the housing market. First, it should be noted that by most measures the housing market has already recovered. Prices are above their trend levels. Sales are also at or above trend levels. Construction has not yet recovered, but this will not happen until the inventory of vacant housing units is further reduced.

However, the piece is seriously misleading in implying that student loan debt is a main factor impeding home buying. (Bizarrely, it discusses the situation of someone looking to buy an $800,000 home, four times the median house price.) While student loan debt undoubtedly does make it more difficult for people to buy homes, so do low wages. This is a much bigger problem for people without college degrees who have historically accounted for the vast majority of homeowners.

According to a recent study by Pew, the median 25-32 year-old with an associate degree earned $30,000 in 2012. Those with only a high school degree earned $28,000. Both are less in real terms than what they would have earned in 1979. If we assume that their mortgage payments and taxes should not exceed 30 percent of their gross income, this means that they cannot afford a house that costs more than $153,500, roughly 75 percent of the median house price. This assumes a 4.5 percent interest rate, a 20 percent down payment, and no need for mortgage insurance. If this were to rise to 5.5 percent, either due to higher interest rates or a need to get mortgage insurance, then they would only be able to afford a home costing $139,500.

The study showed the median high school grad earned $28,000, which means that in these cases the most expensive house they could afford would be $143,300 in the case of a 4.5 percent interest rate and $130,200 in the case of 5.5 percent interest rate. As a result, most young people without college degrees will not be earning enough money to buy a house. It is worth noting that the Pew study showed that the median wage of college grads has barely risen for the typical college grad over the last three decades also. They have also been victims of the upward redistribution during this period, although not quite to the same extent as those with less education.