Like so many millennials, Lara Wood and Sam Tanaka felt priced out of the Bay Area’s brutal housing market. They couldn’t imagine saving enough for a down payment on a house of their own, so they kept dropping $2,000 rent payments into their Fremont landlord’s lap.
It made no sense: “We’ve been married four years,” said Wood, 33, “and we have dual incomes, no kids and we pay a lot in taxes, and we were looking to make a good financial decision for our future.”
And so Wood, a dietitian, and Tanaka, 32, a mechatronic engineer, began their house hunt. They made the usual offers, suffered the usual turndowns, lost sleep and finally hit pay dirt in July, purchasing a 2-bedroom 960-square-foot home in San Leandro for less than a half-million dollars: “Cute little thing,” Wood said. “I love it. I love daydreaming about the things I’m going to do to make it mine.”
Against all odds, the couple now has what most millennials want: a home.
Indeed, the vast majority of millennials — typically defined as age 34 and under — plan to buy a home at some point in the future: 91 percent, according to Fannie Mae’s latest National Housing Survey. Yet homeownership for adults under that age threshold has trended downward for 40 years and now stands at 34.8 percent, a drop from 39 percent in 2009. Buried in student debt or beholden to flat wage growth, many millennials are late to launch careers, marriage and parenthood, the markers that historically coincide with homeownership.
In the Bay Area, where the median price for a single-family home is $700,000 — and tilts a good deal higher in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and much of Berkeley and Oakland — the American dream of homeownership can seem like a pipe dream.
“The juice isn’t worth the squeeze,” said Darin Alpert, 29, a sales director in San Francisco for the tech company Bazaarvoice. He chooses to rent in the Russian Hill neighborhood because he “can’t justify” spending $1 million for a one-bedroom condo. Instead, he owns an investment property in San Diego.
A national survey by ApartmentList.com, a real estate website, recently found that 74 percent of millennial renters intend to buy homes, though few plan to do so within the next three years. The survey’s ranking of major metropolitan areas shows that San Jose rates last for millennial optimism: Only 53 percent who rent here said they intend to buy, while 24 percent expect to always rent. In San Francisco and Oakland, treated as a combined metropolitan area, 67 percent said they intend to buy, and 13 percent to always rent.
At the top of the list: Cincinnati, Austin and Denver, relative bastions of affordability, where more than 80 percent plan to become homeowners.
Millennials in the Bay Area and other pricey urban centers face a reality check: “I don’t want to say they’ve given up,” said Andrew Woo, 29, ApartmentList.com‘s data analyst, “but some may have realized that purchasing a home could be beyond their reach.” He and his wife, who rent in San Francisco, are saving aggressively for a down payment and anticipate moving elsewhere in the Bay Area or out-of-state once they begin to raise a family and decide to buy a home.
Millennials have an array of reasons for being slow to buy.
Aside from the cost, millennials also consider lifestyle and mobility: opting for flexibility and work-leisure balance, and living lean by choosing adventures over acquisitions.
“You’re talking about actually buying a house that I’d just plop myself down in? No way! Are you kidding?” asked Tim Goldberg, 24, a mechanical engineer on the Peninsula. “It basically means that you’re stuck in this one job or stuck in this one area for the rest of your life. But I think we’ve got a global economy now, and the opportunity to live in some exotic European city doing your dream job is on my mind as a possibility in the future.”
Erick Davidson, 26, a communications manager who lives in San Francisco and works for Listia, a tech company in Mountain View, agreed. “It just seems like a huge time sink and money sink,” he said of homeownership. “When I analyze it, I’m in favor of more experiences and less ownership, and I guess a house is probably the biggest thing you could put on the ownership list.”
Not all 20-somethings are house-averse, however.
Leeyen Rogers, a 25-year-old tech marketer and renter in San Francisco, would “rather pay $1 million for a small apartment in the city than have a sprawling mansion in the middle of nowhere.” A practiced market watcher, she expects runaway housing prices to correct themselves, putting her in a position to buy a home in five to seven years.
“I don’t want to be one of those sad cases in San Francisco and be 40 years old and still renting,” Rogers said. “Owning a home is still one of the most valuable investments that you can make.”
Anthony Diamond, 28, chief technology officer for Axiom Exergy, a clean-tech startup in Richmond, doesn’t “necessarily have confidence in the long-term strength of the housing market” and regards a home as a potential drag on time and mobility.
Yet Diamond, who rents in Berkeley, sees enough financial sense in owning to have developed a couple of timelines for himself: the first, to buy a condo in three to five years, and the second, to buy a larger property for himself and his mother in seven to eight years. He can see moving to Santa Cruz or maybe back to the Northwest, where he grew up.
Diamond and others in his age bracket are emerging as a target market for real estate agents, who see them heading down the homeownership path.
Yvonne Lee, a 32-year-old agent with Walnut Creek-based Dudum Real Estate, focuses on fellow millennials, many of whom buy townhouses and condos costing $300,000 to $500,000.
She offers suggestions: Think about renting a room to offset the mortgage, she tells her clients, because “it’s not the price you pay, it’s how much you pay per month. I tell them only to do what they’re comfortable with.”
Some are investment savvy, but many of her first-time buyers need plenty of hand holding. She urges them to bring their parents on board. Regardless of whether they can help with a down payment, parents “understand the process. They help their kids get through it. Parents have to be in the same boat, and parents have to be happy, too. You don’t want to hear, ‘I told you so.’ “
Sometimes all the planning in the world can’t help, though.
Monika Hathaway, 27, grew up in Palo Alto and Saratoga and works as a public relations accounts supervisor for Ogilvy Mather in San Francisco. She dreams of buying there “in a neighborhood with a good view and lots of trees.” Alas, she has found that “everything I want to actually own or invest in that I consider actually livable is just so far outside of my price range. I could stay in the Bay Area, but then I’d have to go far out into the East Bay, and then there’s the commute. I don’t want that. It’s important to me to be within BART distance.
“And when the time comes and my father can’t live by himself, I can’t take care of him in a small apartment in San Francisco,” she said. “So having space is real important to me.”
There is a place where she can have the space: Denver, where she expects $600,000 to cover three bedrooms and a yard — “a tall ask in San Francisco, like $2 million.” She hopes to transfer to her company’s office there.
“In Denver, you kind of get the same vibe as California — but no beach,” she said, thinking about it. “Heartbreaking.”
According to numerous reports and surveys, it’s older millennials, especially those who are married, who tend to see ownership as a near-term possibility.
“It’s on that list of progression,” said first-time homebuyer Lara Wood, 33. “You go to college. You get married. You buy a house.”
Growing up in Piedmont, she had imagined herself buying before age 30: “It happened sooner for our parents,” she said. “Things have kind of been pushed back. A lot of people my age are struggling with it. My friends my age don’t own homes.”
Hearing stories about the exorbitant Bay Area market, she and husband Sam Tanaka, 32, assumed they would need to put 20 percent down, which seemed frightening, if not impossible. Their families helped them get over the psychological hurdle: “They said, ‘Well, when we were your age, we thought it was too high, too. But we figured out how to do it, and eventually it’ll be in your favor.’ “
The couple prequalified for a loan in February. They bid their maximum, but wound up putting just 5 percent down — and the new owners have since gone to work fixing a drainage problem in the backyard. “We’re in the process of ripping up the patio with a jackhammer, doing it ourselves,” Wood said proudly. “But as exhausted as we are, we are happy. It’s adorable, a beautiful little house.”
— Richard Scheinin