By Ellyn Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
In recent years, much attention has been focused on the growing tendency of millennials to rent. Theories for the decrease in homeownership among young adults abound. They include rising student debt levels that crowd out additional borrowing, a tendency to live in more urban areas where the cost to buy is relatively high, a generally tougher credit environment, and even shifts in the perception of homeownership in the wake of the housing bust. The ideas have been widely debated, and yet no single factor seems to neatly explain the declining share of the millennial population opting to buy a house. (See this webcast by the Atlanta Fed's Center for Real Estate Analytics for a discussion of these issues.)
To the extent that these factors are true, they may be affecting the decisions of other generations as well. Chart 1 below shows the overall average homeownership rate and homeownership rates by age group from 1982 to 2015. It's clear that homeownership rates have declined for everyone during the past 10 years, not just for millennials.
In fact, homeownership among young Generation Xers has fallen by a bit more than the millennial generation since the housing peak - declining 11 percentage points since 2005 compared with a decline of 9 percentage points for those under 35 years old.
Another interesting point of comparison is the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, a period in which the United States had a relatively stable share of owner-occupied housing of around 64.0 percent. During the subsequent housing boom, the homeownership rate climbed to a peak of 69 percent in 2004, only to fall back down to 63.7 percent in 2015, a level similar to that prevailing before 1995. However, each age group under age 65 has a somewhat lower homeownership rate than their same-aged peers had during the 1986-94 period.
The fact that the average U.S. homeownership rate is close to rates seen in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s while homeownership rates within age groups (under 65) are currently lower than their respective averages in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s suggests that factors other than age may be affecting the average person's decision to buy or rent.
To investigate what else may be going on, charts 2 and 3 show homeownership rates by family type and race. Between 2005 and 2015, the trend mirrors what's happening by age group. The tendency to own a home has been falling for all family types and races over the past decade. In general, economic incentives (or cultural attitudes) appear to have shifted the population toward renting and away from buying.
However, the picture is quite different when you compare homeownership rates by family type and race to the pre-1995 period. While homeownership rates within age groups are generally lower today, married couples, one-person households, and nonmarried, multiperson households were all more likely to own their home in 2015. Homeownership rates across race (except for blacks) were also higher in 2015 than in 1994.
So how do we interpret the fact that the overall homeownership rate is close to its average in the 1986 to 1994 period? Are millennials to blame? Yes. But so is everyone else under the age of 65. The data suggest that whatever is affecting millennials' homeownership decisions is applicable to older individuals as well. Further, it seems there are other, possibly larger, factors affecting homeownership, such as the changing face of America. Although homeownership rates by family types and racial groups are a bit above the level seen in 1994, the average person in 2015 was about as likely to live in a home that is owned or being bought. Thus, the shift in the distribution of the population toward racial groups and family types (and likely other factors) that tend to have lower homeownership rates is likely exerting an important influence on the overall homeownership rate.