On the House: Despite low prices and rates, housing costs overwhelming many

Posted: March 11, 2012

I was 31 before I could afford to buy my first house.

Despite my years of uninterrupted employment, it was a relatively modest purchase, $65,500 with $10,000 down, meaning that I - actually, we - were taking on a mortgage of about $55,000.

If I could have used today's fixed rate of 3.89 percent, my monthly payment, minus taxes and homeowners insurance, would have been about $289. These days, I spend about that on yogurt, blueberries, and apples each month.

We couldn't afford more back in 1982 because of the interest rate, which topped 18 percent. We bought because we could assume a Veterans Administration mortgage at 13.5 percent, which meant that we could own the house, not the other way around.

We've stuck with that plan in the ensuing years, and fortunately, it has worked for us.

Three decades have passed. Not only are interest rates at record lows today, home prices are at pre-boom levels. Yet no one is camping out overnight at new-home developments to grab the choicest lots, nor are people knocking on doors, asking the occupants if they want to sell.

Why? According to the Center for Housing Policy's annual Housing Landscape report, the affordability of housing for America's working households actually worsened between 2008 and 2010 for both working renters and working owners, despite falling prices.

Although median housing costs for working homeowners declined modestly between 2008 and 2010, their incomes declined even more, driven in large part by a decrease in the median number of hours worked per week, said the report, released in late February.

Working homeowners saw the largest decline in income, dropping from $43,570 in 2008 to $41,413 in 2010 (in nominal dollars) - about 5 percent.

The center reported that nearly one in four working households spent more than half its income on housing.

The share of working households with a severe housing-cost burden increased significantly between 2008 and 2010, the report said, rising from 21.8 percent to 23.6 percent. Working renters fared even worse, with both increased rents and decreased incomes.

Though incomes in general increased somewhat between 2008 and 2010, renters saw a 4 percent decline in household income. Over the same period, the housing costs of renters rose 4 percent.

The center's report defines working households as those that worked at least 20 hours per week, on average, and had a household income of no more than 120 percent of the median income in their area.

There were 45.1 million working U.S. households in 2010, 22.6 million owning homes and 22.5 million renting, the center said.

The share of working households with severe housing-cost burdens increased significantly in 24 states between 2008 and 2010, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the report said.

In Pennsylvania, 18 percent of working households were in that category, up from 17 percent in 2008 and 2009; in New Jersey, it was 32 percent, compared with 29 percent in 2009 and 28 percent in 2008.

That means that of the 1,879,159 working households in Pennsylvania, 344,345 had severe housing-cost burdens; of the 1,139,986 in New Jersey, 360,393 were struggling with housing costs.

In the Philadelphia metro area, which includes Camden and Wilmington, the figure was 22 percent, or 201,082 working households out of 893,786. Other areas were in worse shape, the center reported, such as New York (34 percent) and Miami (the worst, at 43 percent).

When we bought our first house, we didn't have a lot of savings, but we had good jobs with high future-earnings potential. The same can't be said, it appears, for a growing number of Americans today.

On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens' home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. See instructional videos at Al's Place. Go to philly.com/yourplace

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @al heavens on Twitter.

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