Paper Illustrates ‘Substantial’ Evolution of First-Time Homebuyer Profile

A new paper from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University said the profile of first-time homebuyers is rapidly shifting from “traditional” households to never-married and newly formed households.

The paper, authored by Jonathan Spader, Shannon Rieger and Sean Veal, said its analysis of the Joint Center’s biennial American Housing Surveys from 1997-2017 found two clear trends: significant increases in the share of recent first-time homebuyers that have never been married; and in the share that are forming new households.

“Taken together, these trends suggest that there may be a fundamental shift in the way that young households are approaching first-time home purchases, such as an increased willingness to purchase homes individually or with unmarried partners,” Spader said.

The paper said while discussions of first-time home buying often tie homeownership entry to life-stage changes, such as marriage and birth of a first child, a growing share of first-time homebuyers do not fit this profile. In 2017, more than half of first-time homebuyers were married (52 percent), but 35 percent of first-time home buyers were never married; 11 percent were divorced or separated; and 3 percent were widowed.

Additionally, the paper said tracking these figures over time reveals a clear shift from married households to never-married households. The married share of first-time homebuyers declined from 61 percent in 1997 to 46 percent in 2013. This decline is offset by an increase in the never-married share from 23 percent in 1997 to 41 percent in 2013.

Over the same period, the share of first-time homebuyers who reported being divorced, separated or widowed hovered between 13-15 percent in all years. Because the trends in marital status are not mirrored by similarly-large shifts in the age distribution of first-time homebuyers, it is unlikely that they are driven by demographic shifts like decisions to delay marriage and childbirth until later ages. Similarly, while this increase preceded the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States, the magnitude of the shift is too large to be fully explained by an increase in homeowners that were same sex couples.

Instead, the authors said, this shift could reflect broader changes in approaches to homeownership, such as an increased willingness to purchase homes individually or with unmarried partners. “This increase substantially outpaces the shifts observed among repeat homebuyers and among all U.S. homeowners during this period,” they said. “While the never-married share of repeat homebuyers and all homeowners increased by 2 percentage points and 4 percentage points, respectively, between 1997-2013, the never-married share of first-time homebuyers increased 17 percentage points during this period. While it subsequently declined somewhat in the redesigned 2015 and 2017 surveys, the change in the never-married share of first-time homebuyers from 1997-2017 still dramatically outpaces the shifts among repeat homebuyers and all homeowners.”

The authors said first-time homebuyers’ formation of new households also exhibits a clear trend that may reflect a more fundamental shift in the way younger people approach first-time home purchases. They noted in 2017, 79 percent of first-time homebuyers were living in existing households–defined as those for whom the prior home was rented by someone in the current household (i.e. renter households that remained intact as they transitioned from renting to owning). Conversely, 21 percent of first-time homebuyers formed a new household at the time of home purchase, including 12 percent who previously lived with a homeowner and 8 percent who previously lived with a renter.

The paper showed the share of first-time homebuyers who were newly-formed households increased markedly from 12 percent in 1997 to 26 percent in 2013, suggesting that more first-time homebuyers than in the past are simultaneously making changes to their household composition. “One possible contributor to this trend is that the rise in adult children living with their parents may be increasing the number of first-time homebuyers transitioning straight from such living arrangements to homeownership,” it said. “However, other explanations are possible as well.”

The paper can be accessed at