On the House: Dreaming of a home, but rents tell a harder truth

Sales and price numbers for 2015 won't be in for a while yet, but I have deemed it appropriate to share prognostications about 2016.

Oh, no, another survey - this time of 2,000 people with time on their hands, conducted by the real estate search engine Trulia.

(This column won't be all survey, I promise - a New Year's resolution I mean to keep.)

First, Trulia says, Americans still want to own homes, despite the miserable years that began, for the Philadelphia region, at least, in the third quarter of 2007.

In 2015, the U.S. home-ownership rate fell to its lowest point since 1967 - 63.4 percent, the Census Bureau reported in July.

The rate peaked at 69.2 percent at the end of 2004. The 50-year average is 65.3 percent, data from the Census Bureau show.

Seventy-five percent of the 2,000 survey respondents agreed that home ownership was part of achieving their American Dream, Trulia says. But dreams and reality often have nothing to do with each other.

The reality is around us, and has been for the last several years, as rental housing continues to pop out of the ground.

Last month, the Goldenberg Group broke ground for a 26-story apartment tower at 12th and Walnut Streets, and this project is just one of the latest. It won't be the last, my industry contacts assure me almost daily.

Is there a danger of overbuilding?

Considering that additional units haven't pushed up the vacancy rate and rents continue to rise, it's very doubtful.

In fact, rents are rising faster than income, and Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies recently warned that the number of Americans considered "cost-burdened" by housing rose in 2015.

Half of renters now are cost-burdened, with 26 percent severely so, paying more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing. Though the rental cost burden is being felt most strongly by low-income families, even moderate-income renters who earn as much as $45,000 a year are feeling the pinch, particularly in urban markets, the Joint Center reported.

Housing assistance is failing to keep up with need, and rental demand also is contributing to the economic crunch felt by renters, the center said.

Tempering the 2,000 survey respondents' desire for housing is the assumption that it will be more difficult to obtain mortgages.

Trulia says this is the result of a fear of rising interest rates, but as anyone with any knowledge knows, higher rates will not be the issue.

Regulations designed to give consumers the opportunity to shop for the best mortgages will be a bigger problem, initially at least.

Kevin Gillen, chief economist for Meyers Research and senior research fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, says he sees benefits in the changes mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009, but also drawbacks.

"Forcing your bank to disclose the comparable mortgage lending terms of its competitors may improve information symmetry for the consumer," Gillen said. "[Yet] it will likely come at the price of a longer time for approval, plus an overall higher cost of mortgage credit for the borrower."

I am suspicious by nature, and experience tells me that what the housing industry says will happen is not always what will be.

I am convinced, however, that any decision on what will likely be the largest purchase in someone's life should be based not on surveys but on painstaking research.

I say that every morning at sunrise, when I look out my kitchen window and see a zombie foreclosure, vacant and decaying, on the other side of the fence.



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