Housing is Unaffordable, But Could It Actually Get Worse?

The housing market, for most people, seems like an unaffordable investment. For years, housing unaffordability was climbing, but not fast enough to keep average Americans from buying primary residences. Now, combine rising interest rates with all-time high appreciation, and the average renter can’t afford a home in most American metros. But how did this all come to be, and is there a chance that home affordability could get even lower than it stands today?

We wanted to know how affordability in the United States compared to other similar countries around the world. Although most Americans would call today’s real estate market completely unaffordable, the data seems to point to something different. There are numerous real estate markets around the country boasting low home prices, high rents, and population growth to support any investment decision. But where are these markets?

Dave does his best in this episode to give you a quick overview of how affordability works. We also talk about what causes housing markets to become unaffordable, which metro areas are the most and least unaffordable, and how the United States ranks when put head-to-head against other economies. Thankfully, there is some good news for landlords throughout this episode, so be sure to stick to the end!

Hey, everyone. Welcome to On the Market. I’m your host, Dave Meyer. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of the most hot button issues in the entire economy, housing affordability, and we all know that housing affordability has been declining pretty steadily throughout the course of 2022. According to the National Association of REALTORS, which has been tracking housing affordability over the last couple of decades, housing has reached its least affordable point since 1989.
There are a lot of different ways that you can measure affordability, so we wanted to double-check that, and according to Black Knight, another really reliable data source, they actually think affordability is at its lowest point that it’s been since the mid-’80s, so by almost every measure, we are seeing affordability go down. This, of course, creates all sorts of problems, not just for home buyers, but also for investors, it even creates home problems for renters, and basically all of society becomes sort of burdened when housing is as unaffordable as it is today. Of course, this is sort this really huge, broad topic, and there are a lot of questions that need to be answered and discussed about affordability, in general, and unfortunately, we can’t get to all of it today, but we can start chipping away at this issue. We’re going to probably do a bunch of other shows about housing affordability, rent affordability, and some of the tangential things around this over the next couple of months, but today, what we can start addressing and what I think is most pressing for most people, especially for real estate investors is just, “Where are we in terms of affordability? Is it sustainable?”
“Is this unusual in the United States? Is it unusual in the context of the world?” Some of the questions I’m going to dive into today are, “Why is affordability so low?,” and for the purposes of this episode, we’re mostly talking about housing, not rent. That can be another episode, but so we’re going to talk about, “Why is affordability low for housing right now? How has affordability trended over the last several decades?,” so we have some context about where the housing market is right now. We’ll talk about how the U.S. compares to other countries in terms of affordability.
This might not seem that obvious, but so many people ask me if current levels of affordability, or maybe I should say unaffordability are sustainable, and for that, we sort of have to look outside the U.S. because we only, as a country, know what’s happened in the U.S. so far, but if we look at different countries, we can see other examples of whether the U.S. is relatively affordable compared to the rest of the world and whether levels of unaffordability, like we have now, can be sustained into the future. Lastly, we’re actually going to look at some of the markets in the U.S. that are the most and least affordable because as we’ve seen for years, people are moving to more affordable markets, and so that could perhaps inform some of your investing decisions if you know where housing is the most or least affordable. We have a great show for you today. As always, the whole mission of this show is to try and help you better understand the economics surrounding the housing market and real estate investing, and today’s show is going to really help you understand the limits of housing price appreciation, right? We’ve seen it go up and up and up, and people wonder, “Where can it go?”
That’s what we’re talking about today, where the housing market is and where it can go in the next couple of years. All right. First things first, let’s just define affordability and what it means, because that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, so we might as well all have a mutual understanding of what housing affordability is. Basically, when we say housing affordability, what we mean is how easily the average American can afford the average priced home. Of course, this is going to vary pretty dramatically from city to city, San Francisco obviously being really unaffordable, cities like Kansas City are more affordable, but for now, in the first part of this episode, we’re going to talk about this on a national level. We’ll get into the regional differences in just a little bit.
To calculate housing affordability, there are a lot of different companies that do this, and each of them sort has their own way of doing it, their own methodology, but there are basically two really obvious inputs for how you calculate affordability. The first is income, “How much money do people actually have?,” and the second is housing prices, “How much do houses cost?” Those are the two obvious inputs, but I should point out that there’s a third really important input, which is mortgage rates. It was actually kind of harder to figure out the number of houses in the U.S. that have a mortgage or are purchased with a mortgage. I found some different competing data sources. It looks like it’s above 90%.
Either way, it’s the vast overwhelming majority of homes are purchased with some kind of mortgage, whether that’s an FHA mortgage, a VA mortgage, conventional. Most of them are purchased with a mortgage, and so that is a third really important variable, right? You can’t just look at housing prices and income, you have to look at how expensive the debt is that you’re using to purchase that house, so most measurements of affordability use these three variables, and I’m going to be talking about a bunch of different studies and information here, but just know that regardless of the methodology, those are sort of the primary factors and primary variables that go into affordability. With this understanding, hopefully for you, it’s easy to see why affordability is so low right now. Prices, of course, everyone on earth basically knows that prices have been going crazy over the last couple years.
They’re up over 40% pre-pandemic. As of July, they’re up 14% year over year, and that is slowing down, but 14% year over year is still incredibly high by any historical context, and so this is one of the fastest rates of appreciation and growth that we’ve seen in the housing market ever, and so that is one major reason. If one of the three variables we just talked about has skyrocketed, like they have, that’s super important. The next is interest rates have doubled since the beginning of the year, or nearly doubled, I should say, and rates are really volatile right now, so it’s hard to know. Depending on when you listen to this, it could change a little bit, but we started the year with interest rates at about 3.1% for the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage, and that’s for owner occupants, not for investors, but that rate has jumped up somewhere between five and 6%.
It’s trending right now as of this recording, which is the end of August. It is trending around mid-5s, 5.5, 5.6%. It’s gone close to six, it’s been back down to five, it’s all over the place, but whatever it is, it is up a lot from the beginning of the year, so you take those two things combine, you see that prices have gone crazy, interest rates have gone up nearly double, those are two of the three factors in affordability and they’re both pointing towards less affordability. The last factor, of course, is wages and income, and that is going up. It’s gone up 5.2% year over year, and that’s great.
In a normal year when there’s not super high inflation, that would be incredible, but it’s just not enough to keep pace, right? If housing prices went up 14% year over year, interest rates have doubled, a 5% year over year increase in wages is definitely not enough to even really make a dent in affordability. I guess it helps a little bit, but it really is not even close to enough to where it would need to be for affordability to moderate. That’s sort of where we are today. Affordability is very low because housing prices have skyrocketed, interest rates are up in the mid-5s, and wages have not kept pace.
The question that becomes like, “Is this new? Is it sustainable? Has this happened before?,” and the short answer is this is not new. Actually, this is not an unprecedented time. I actually kind of thought it would be, that this would be one of the least affordable times to buy a home in the U.S., but that is not the case. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, housing was actually less affordable, and for periods of that, it was way less affordable than it is now largely because of interest rates.
Interest rates in the late ’70s, some points in the ’80s were actually in the double digits, and I’m talking about mortgage interest rates, because inflation was super high. Can you imagine that? People right now are complaining that interest rates have gone up to 5% or 6%? They were like 15% in the ’70s and ’80s, and I really don’t believe that we’re getting back to that point at any time, but as you can imagine, even though home prices were not as high as they were then, when you have interest rates that high, you can bet that affordability is going down, and that’s exactly what happened. I think it’s also important to note that we are less affordable now than we were leading up to the great recession, and that is correlation. That is not causation, everyone, so that does not mean that just because affordability was low prior to the great recession, that the market is going to crash, but it is important to know.
It’s an important data point, that in 2006, we were slightly less affordable than we were now. Now, we all know … I just think … Let me just stress that point again because I don’t want anyone to get confused. This does not mean that there will be a crash just because these two data points happened at the same time.
We all obviously know what happened in the late 2000’s, but it’s also important to know that it didn’t crash in the ’70s or ’80s. In the ’70s and ’80s, the price-to-income ratio was above 50%, which is crazy. It’s at about 36% now, and so it was way worse. It was way less affordable, and the market did not crash in the ’70s or ’80s. It actually grew pretty steadily, at least in nominal. Nominal means not inflation-adjusted terms, so just keep that in mind, that the market kept going up despite that really, really high unaffordability, less affordability than we saw today.
That’s something just to take note of and want to make sure everyone understands. These are not causal, they are correlated. All that said, the question of, “Is this new?,” no, it’s not. Housing is the least affordable. It’s been in decades, but it’s not even close, really, to the worst it’s ever been. It was actually way worse in the mid’80s, so that is something that you should keep in mind, that obviously, this is a problem.
It’s a problem for everyone, for home buyers, investors, renters, society, but it’s not the worst it has been, and that’s important to keep in mind as we consider whether this can keep going and what’s going to happen next. To me, this historical context makes me think that unaffordability could get worse. I’m not saying that in today’s market, it’s going to get worse. I actually sort of think that we’ve seen prices started to come down, and I think that affordability is probably at least going to level off and maybe get a little better over the next couple of months, but I just want to provide some historical context and show you that, “Is it possible that it gets worse and the market doesn’t crash?” Yes, because that has happened before, but of course, just looking at the United States is not a ton of data because the market has changed so much over the last couple months, so we decided that we were going to look at how the U.S. compares to other markets, other countries basically, and see if housing affordability in the U.S. really is all that unaffordable compared to other countries, because I’ve heard this thing like, “Oh, housing is so unaffordable in the U.S.,” but then you hear that perhaps in other countries, it’s even worse, and their markets haven’t tanked.
We looked into this, and for the purposes of this podcast, we decided we would use this study from the OECD. It’s this big economic organization. It stands for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is a coalition of 38 countries. It’s like a lot of the large advanced economies in the U.S.. There’s tons of information in here.
We’ll put the link in the show notes. There’s tons of good stuff in there, but on this list, out of the 38 sort of most advanced economies in the country, the U.S. ranks 12th for unaffordability, so it’s in the upper half, right? It’s less affordable than the average OECD country, but it’s not at the top. Despite some of the narrative, unaffordability in the U.S. is a problem, and it’s at its highest point in decades, and compared to the rest of the advanced economy world, it’s not really all that different. It’s kind of close to the average, actually, for most advanced economies.
There are several countries that have less affordable housing markets, and if you’re curious, Portugal takes the list as the least affordable housing market. We also have New Zealand, Luxembourg, Austria, lucky me, the Netherlands, where I live is the fifth least affordable. We also have Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain, and Chile. Those are less affordable countries in terms of the housing market than the U.S.. Again, U.S., as compared to most advanced economies, close to the middle.
The most affordable of all those, if you’re curious, is Japan, which sort of makes sense because if you follow the global economy, you know that Japan has seen a lot of deflation and actual stagflation over the last couple of years, but also kind of weird because Tokyo is super expensive, but obviously, Tokyo is not the whole country, and the rest of the country must be more affordable to average it out. What this means to me, when we look at all these other countries, my takeaway is that while the U.S. is very unaffordable compared to its own history, there are many large, advanced economies where housing is even less affordable, and so I looked into a couple of these because I wanted to know what was going on, and so I looked at Canada, and I think this is a great example. Obviously, it’s another North American country, shares a lot with the U.S.. What’s happened in Canada is that housing has been getting progressively less affordable there for decades. If you look at disposable income versus their housing prices, it’s not even close, and so that goes back to 2000, but what’s interesting to me is that although the Canadian housing market is less affordable than the U.S., and has been getting less affordable for 20 something years, the prices didn’t crash in 2008.
They dipped, but they did not crash, and I think that’s super interesting because, again, when we look at affordability in the U.S., we saw the last time affordability was even close to this level. It was pre-crash, and then before that, in the ’80s, and so if you look at Canada as a parable, apparently the level of affordability in Canada has not caused the housing market to crash, at least as of yet. The same thing happened in New Zealand. If you look at New Zealand, this is another sort of notoriously unaffordable housing market, and in New Zealand, we’ve seen that things have gotten less and less and less affordable and have not crashed. Of course, things could crash still, so this is just a single point in time. I’m just looking at history, but if you’re wondering, the point of this episode is if you’re wondering if housing prices can get less affordable, both data points we’ve looked at point to yes.
If the U.S. is history, is any guide, and if international comparisons are any guide, then yes, the U.S. can see the housing market become less affordable, and that’s, honestly, it’s not a good thing. I’m not rooting for this. I don’t want housing prices to keep going up at the rate they are. I think that’s super unsustainable. It’s bad for everyone.
My job is to tell you what the data tells us, and the data tells us that there is historical precedence for advanced economies having even less affordable housing markets than we have today without seeing crashes. Again, this is just history. We are in a very strange economic time. We know countries really have seen the level of appreciation that we’ve seen over the last couple years, so we’re all in a new times. I’m just saying that there is historical precedence for what we’re seeing in the U.S. right now.
Now, of course, this is just on a national level, and regionally, every housing market is different. We’ve been talking a lot recently on the show about how the housing markets, the most likely scenario, in my opinion, for what happens over the next year or two is that there’s sort of a split between what happens. Some markets are going to go down, and we’re starting to see that. Some markets are probably going to keep growing, and so I think it’s important to look regionally. We can’t look at all of this.
We will put a link into the OECD affordability, but what’s really telling, and so … Sorry. It’s not OECD, my mistake. We’re going to talk about this other study that we looked at, called the Demographia International Housing Affordability, and this is a little bit different. It doesn’t look at all 38 OECD countries. It looks 92 major metros across eight countries, those being Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, and the U.S..
The results, you guys, are that housing is really damn expensive everywhere. It is so expensive, and people are really struggling with this across all of these places. What stood out to me on a country by country level is that while everywhere is super expensive, the U.S. has sort of a wider distribution, so there are really expensive markets, but there are some that are actually affordable. The study sort of breaks down each of the 92 metro areas into four different categories. They’re affordable, moderately unaffordable, seriously unaffordable, and severely unaffordable.
Wow, those are all really daunting names, right? That all sounds really cool, so all four of those. In the U.S., 27 out of the 56, so nearly half of the markets are severely unaffordable. Half of the major metros in the U.S. are currently ranked severely unaffordable. That’s terrible.
Secondly, by comparison, the UK is pretty similar. They have 11 of 21, so again, that’s actually worse. A little bit over half of them are severely unaffordable, but if you look at Australia or Canada, it’s worse. In Australia, five out of five of their markets are severely unaffordable. In Canada, four of six are severely unaffordable.
While the U.S. does have about half being at the worst end of the spectrum, there are some that are actually pretty good, and on this list, the U.S. actually has the most affordable housing markets of all. Of all 92 across these eight countries, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is actually the most affordable market of all of them, so if you’re looking for a cheap place to live, Pittsburgh, number one on the list. In fact, that top three most affordable markets in the whole country, or across these eight countries are in the U.S., so Pittsburgh is number one, then we have Oklahoma City, Rochester, New York, where I went to undergrad is number three, very affordable city, and there are a bunch more in the top 10, so we got St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, which is by a lot of measures, right now at the end of August, the hottest housing market in the entire country, Buffalo, New York, Kansas City, Louisville, Kentucky, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you’re wondering, the least affordable city by comparison is Hong Kong, and that’s followed by Sydney, Australia, and Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada. Then, the least affordable cities in the U.S., I bet you can predict it. Think really hard for one second about what the least affordable city in the U.S. is going to be.
If you guess New York, you are wrong. It’s actually San Jose, California, followed by Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and then Miami, so interesting. As a native new Yorker, I thought it was going to be New York, but it’s mostly places in California, so we got San Jose, Honolulu, San Francisco, LA, San Diego. That’s what we got. That’s the information I have for you today.
I wanted to just give a quick guide on where we are in affordability. The takeaways right now are this, the U.S. is getting more unaffordable, but my guess is that it’s going to level out, because housing prices are starting to come down off their peak, and although mortgage rates are really fluctuating, and they will probably go higher, I don’t think they’re going to go much higher, so I think the impact of rates going up and prices on houses going down a bit are going to counteract each other and affordability is probably going to stay stable over the next couple of months. That’s my guess, but in terms of historical and international precedent, it is possible that affordability actually gets worse, and that is not what I think anyone wants to hear, but that’s the reality of what we’ve seen in the past, and of course, this situation is different, but that is what we’ve seen in the past. A couple other things that sort of stood out to me, takeaways, action steps, next steps for you are, one, with the rise of work from home, we did an episode about this a couple weeks ago. If you want to listen to that, you should. With the rise of work for home, that is stabilizing, and about 30% of all days are work from home now, so that’s stabilizing.
With that, there is evidence that people in the U.S. are migrating from more expensive to less expensive places, right? If they don’t have to live … If you can get paid a San Francisco salary, but live in Tulsa, people are interested in that because their quality of life is going to go up. The cost of living is going to go down significantly, and so we’re seeing that a lot right now, and that could continue if unaffordability stays relatively high, and we’re starting to see evidence of that, not just in the Sun Belt. For years, we’ve seen people been moving to the Southeast because it was relatively more affordable, but now, as of August, at least, we’re seeing that some markets that are the hottest right now are some of these sort of really affordable cities.
Cincinnati is blowing up right now, as is Rochester, New York, just as two examples of really hot markets right now that were both in the top 10 most affordable markets across those eight countries, right? That is really notable that perhaps demand, which has been elevated in affordable cities, is going to keep going, and that is a good sign for appreciation, even in the short-term. Some markets like Cincinnati might still go up in the market right now, and it shows for rent. Rent in Cincinnati went up, I think 30% year over year, so if there is demand in these affordable cities, that is really notable for real estate investors, because obviously, that bodes well for economics, economically for people who own properties there. The second takeaway here is sort of a riff on what I was just saying, which is high home prices increase demand for rent.
When we started looking at this research, I was curious, “What happens in countries where there is high housing prices, there’s rent also higher?,” and the answer, in short, is yes. We’ll dive into rent affordability another time, but the answer is yes. If there is less affordability, then there are two things happen. There’s a higher share of renters, so the home ownership rate goes down, which means that there’s demand for rental properties, and when there’s demand for rental properties, that means rent goes up, and so that bodes well for real estate investors who own properties, is that demand is going to continue to go up, and this just makes sense, right? If people can’t afford to buy, they need to live somewhere and there needs to be enough rental units on the market to supply that.
What we’ve seen over the last couple years is not only are there not enough homes for purchase, and that’s pushed up housing prices, but there aren’t enough rental properties for rent in the U.S., and that’s pushed up rent prices a lot. I know probably a lot of rental property investors have enjoyed that, I being one of them, but this, to me, is not a sustainable level in the U.S.. We can’t have rent growth go up at this rate and expect our society to function well, right? There’s going to be a lot of discontent if housing prices, as well as rent remain this unaffordable. During period, just to recap, during periods of high unaffordability, they’re likely to have a large amount of rent growth due to increased demand, and that’s what we’re seeing right now in the U.S..
Even though housing prices have peaked in many markets, interest rates are elevated, so if affordability stays high, rent growth is likely to keep up. It is slowing down, but is likely to stay high, or at least keep going even if house prices to go down. The last takeaway here is that high home prices, it’s sort of this self-fulfilling thing, where it actually reduces demand for homes, so when people can’t afford homes, they drop out of the housing market. This puts downward pressure on housing prices, and this is why a lot of people believe that because housing affordability is so low in the U.S. right now, the market is going to decline, and honestly, that’s what we’re starting to see. Even though there is precedent for lower affordability, I think we’re seeing that the American public is not going to tolerate.
They don’t want a part of it, right? We’ve seen this tipping point where interest rates are going up, housing prices are so high, and people see risk in that. They can’t afford it, and so I believe the reason we’re seeing this correction take place right now, where prices are coming off their peak … Again, I don’t think we’re at a point where it crashed. That is definitely still a possibility that it will crash, but the reason we’re seeing this correction, in my mind, is affordability.
We’ve just reached a point where people aren’t willing to pay more for houses, and so we’re probably going to see things come down. Again, that’s not, in my opinion, going to be in every market. My belief is that we will start to see the market split. Some markets will continue growing, albeit at a more modest pace, some will start to see declines, and we’ve seen that the markets that are seeing declines the fastest right now are the ones with the least affordability. Look at places like Las Vegas, Austin, San Jose, San Francisco.
You know these cities, right? The least affordable places are coming down the fastest, so this is really important. If you want to start understanding which markets are going to do well over the next couple years, my bet is on places that are more affordable. It doesn’t mean they have to have good economic growth. Of course, you don’t want to go to a city.
Even if it’s affordable, you don’t want it to be affordable because the population is declining and there’s no economic growth. The best chance of seeing housing price growth, or at least stability over the next couple years, in my mind, is places that have relatively consistent affordability, places that still have population growth, still have economic growth, but haven’t seen this huge surge in unaffordability over the last couple years because at a certain point, when it’s so unaffordable, things start to come down and we’re already starting to see that happen. That’s what I got for you guys today. Hopefully this was helpful to you. I get questions about this all the time about housing affordability, how the U.S. ranks compared to other countries and compared to our own history, so hopefully this answers questions for a lot of you out there, but I would love to know what all of you, what questions you have about affordability.
You can ask them to me in two places. One is on the BiggerPockets Forums. We have an On the Market forums specifically for the show there, and you can go ask me a question there, or you can do it on Instagram, where I am @thedatadeli. Thank you all so much as always for listening. I really appreciate it, and if you like these kind of shows, if you like our show in general, if you listen every week, we would love it if you gave us a five-star review on Spotify or Apple.
It really means a lot to us. It cost you nothing, and it would really help us out, so thanks again for listening. We’ll see you all next time. On The Market is created by me, Dave Meyer and Kalin Bennett, produced by Kalin Bennett, editing by Joel Ascarza and Onyx Media, copywriting by Nate Weintraub, and a very special thanks to the entire BiggerPockets team. The content on the show, On the Market are opinions only. All listeners should independently verify data points, opinions, and investment strategies.


Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.

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