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Lawrence Talej was ready to buy his first house. 

It was late 2019, and Talej, then a 26-year-old software developer, had saved up for a down payment while living with his parents in a suburb near Richmond, Virginia. After looking at a few houses in the area, he won out on a nearby home for $315,000 — right at the asking price. But before he could officially become a first-time homeowner, an inspection revealed the house needed as much as $40,000 worth of repairs. He decided to back out of the contract. Better deals would come around, he thought. 

Now Talej wishes he’d bought the home after all. The surge in home prices during the COVID-19 pandemic meant that by the time he jumped back into the market during the summer of 2021, it was too late. The median price for a home in his ZIP code had risen by more than $100,000. 

For first-time homebuyers like Talej, the outlook has never been bleaker. The double whammy of skyrocketing home prices and surging interest rates has pushed homeownership further out of reach, while a decade of underbuilding has left the latest generation of hopeful owners with fewer options and stiffer competition for listings.

This unfortunate combination means first-time buyers are waiting longer to purchase homes and winning out with less frequency than ever before. Between June 2021 and June 2022, the typical first-time homebuyer was 36 years old, the highest median age since the National Association of Realtors started surveying buyers in 1981. And during that year, first-time buyers accounted for just 26% of all home purchases, the lowest percentage ever, according to the NAR.

It’s clear that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in the housing market, forging a greater divide between those who already own their home and those who are still searching for that opportunity. And while there may be some short-term relief on the horizon, housing advocates worry that without some sort of large-scale intervention, the long-term obstacles for first-time buyers will continue to mount.

Meanwhile, would-be buyers are stuck with the feeling that they’ve been locked out of the market entirely. Talej, who’s now 29, summed up his cohort’s position with a grim acknowledgement: “We’re royally screwed.”

The new first-time homebuyer

The profile of the typical first-time homebuyer has dramatically shifted over the past few decades — and even more so in the years since the housing-market meltdown in 2008. The most recent NAR data indicates the new face of first-time homeownership is older, richer, more likely to be unmarried, and more likely to be moving right from their parents’ home.

Perhaps the most striking shift is the age of new homebuyers. The median age of someone purchasing their first home in 1981 was 29. Over the next 30 years that figure barely creeped up, rising to just 30 in 2010. But in the past decade, the median age has ticked up even higher, reaching a record of 36 last year. And according to Jessica Lautz, the deputy chief economist and vice president of research for the NAR, there’s reason to believe first-time buyers will skew older for the foreseeable future. Higher mortgage rates are stretching budgets thin, while a dearth of housing inventory keeps prices elevated, meaning new buyers need to build up a larger nest egg before hopping into the market. 

“It makes sense that they would have to save for a longer period of time, unless they have family help,” Lautz said.

Other changes in the typical first-time homebuyer also reflect the growing challenges of saving up for a down payment. In 2020, the median household income for first-time homebuyers reached $90,539 in inflation-adjusted dollars, the highest level since 2001 and well above the national median income for all households of $71,186. The median income for repeat buyers also peaked at $117,753 that year. Median incomes for both first-time buyers and repeat buyers fell in 2021, to $71,000 and $96,000. But Lautz told me that the drop didn’t necessarily mean that more homes became accessible to people with lower incomes — rather, the people who ended up being able to make their first purchase were buying in markets that were cheaper in the first place.