As Mortgage Rates Rise, Housing Affordability the Worst in Years

By three different measures, the cost of buying a home in America is going through the roof – so high that one analysis says housing affordability is the worst it’s been since 2006.

Calculations Zillow released earlier this month estimate the monthly mortgage payment on the median American home bought in March was 19.5 percent higher than it was three months prior, and 38 percent above where it was in March 2021. This, Zillow researchers said, was thanks to a 20.6 percent rise in the median home’s value nationwide and the rapid increase in the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed-rate home loan to 4.54 percent in March.

“Record low mortgage rates had been an affordability lifeline during the pandemic, keeping monthly payments in check even while prices climbed quickly,” Jeff Tucker, Zillow senior economist, said in a statement released alongside the research. “March was the biggest test yet of whether enough buyers can meet the new asking prices to keep home values growing at a record pace, and the answer was ‘So far, yes.’ There will be a point when the cost of buying a home deters enough buyers to bring price growth back down to Earth, but for now, there is plenty of fuel in the tank as home shopping season kicks into gear.”

The economics team at Zillow competitor Redfin came out with an even more pessimistic analysis last week: the median homebuyer in March was facing a 39 percent higher mortgage payment than the median homebuyer the year before. Redfin declared the increase to be the highest year-over-year jump since it started tracking the metric in 2015.

“It seems as though the ratio of buyers to sellers remains mostly the same, which is why we have yet to see a substantial drop in bidding wars or the share of homes selling quickly,” Redfin Chief Economist Daryl Fairweather said in a statement. “It’s still early days though when it comes to 5 [percent] mortgage rates. The number of buyers willing to pay such high mortgage payments could evaporate by late summer.”

But it fell to real estate data firm Black Knight to declare the most dour interpretation so far. The share of median income needed to make the monthly principal and interest payment on the purchase of the average-priced home using a 20 percent down, 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at the prevailing interest rate hit 32.5 percent as of April 21. That puts affordability nearly at parity with what Black Knight calculates is the all-time high for that ratio: 34.1 percent hit in July 2006, just before the housing bubble of the period began deflating.

“In ‘kitchen table’ terms, that equates to a $522 higher average monthly P&I payment – a 38 [percent] increase since January – with that payment up $790 (+72 [percent]) since the start of the pandemic,” Black Knight Data & Analytics President Ben Graboske said in a statement. “It won’t take much to push us past 2006 levels either; a 50 basis points jump in 30-year offerings or a 5 [percent] rise in home prices would push affordability to its worst level on record. And saying that, we should also keep in mind that they’ve already risen 200 basis points and 5.9 [percent] respectively this year.”

With the Federal Reserve expected to increase its benchmark interest rate by a sizable half-percentage-point Wednesday and its balance sheet tightening adding even more to interest rates, where do buyers go from here?

Some are dropping out of the market, as measured by significant declines in purchase mortgage applications reported by the Mortgage Bankers Association. The group’s nationwide survey of loan data shows that after holding relatively steady on a month-over-month and week-over week basis during the first quarter, purchase applications slumped significantly during April. The number of purchase loan applications for the week ending April 22 – the most recent data available – was down nearly 49.5 percent from the same week in 2021,  down 16.6 percent from late March and down 7.4 percent the week before, even as the market hit what is traditionally the heart of the spring homebuying season.