How to Navigate the Housing Affordability Crisis
Housing affordability is a huge problem for many people, and it can’t be solved with a quick tip or a magic-bullet answer.
According to some recent research, just 21% of listed homes in the U.S. are affordable for the average household—“affordable” meaning that the monthly mortgage payment would consume 30% or less of the average person’s monthly income. In fact, the average American would have to spend 42.9% of their income to afford just a median-priced home.
Renters aren’t fairing better, with average rent prices up 18% in the last 5 years—outpacing inflation and placing a heavier financial burden on those who already tend to fall on the lower end of the economic scale. Affordable housing programs exist, but most are overloaded and many have waitlists that are over a decade long.
Many factors play into how expensive it is to get housing, whether you’re renting or trying to buy your own home. The economy, mortgage rates, a physical housing shortage, and the fact that salaries have not kept pace with the rising cost of housing, even if you account for inflation, all play a role. Making housing more affordable across the board would require big, systemic changes. But while you’re working with what we’ve got right now, here are some tips for navigating housing unaffordability.
If you’re renting:
Reach out to a local real estate agent
It’s part of a real estate agent’s job to know the housing market inside and out, and if you’re struggling to find an affordable rental on your own, get in touch. Not every real estate agent handles rentals, but many will be happy to connect you with someone who can help.
Real estate agents are especially helpful in rental markets that are highly competitive and when you’re looking for something very specific (like a certain feature, a particular location, or you’re on a tight budget). Just be sure to ask what their policy is on rental properties and if you can expect to pay for their services. The great news is that if you connect with someone you like, you can stay in touch for if and when you’re ready to buy a home.
Get in touch with property management companies directly
Tenants often have mixed feelings about property management companies. Conflicts sometimes arise because these companies have a fiduciary responsibility to a property’s owner, which means they often prioritize the owner’s needs. But the important thing to remember about property management companies is that they are businesses, and without well-qualified, responsible tenants, the business doesn’t run.
If you have decent credit, solid employment, and a good rental history, reaching out to a property management company directly can be a great way to find an affordable rental. Do a little research to find out which companies work with lower-priced rentals in your area, and then give them a call. Even if you don’t see an exact match on their website, they may have other properties in the pipeline, and applying early could give you an advantage.
Tap your network
Still not finding an affordable rental? Put the word out. Talk to friends, family, coworkers, and anyone else in your network and let them know you’re looking for a new place to live. Tell them your price limit and anything that’s on your must-have list (for example, if you need the property to be pet friendly or include a washer and dryer). There’s a high chance that someone will know someone who can help you find what you’re looking for.
Word-of-mouth recommendations usually come with the added benefit of a referral. Landlords may be more willing to negotiate or less stringent with application requirements if you’re referred to them by someone they know and trust. Additionally, the body of research behind social proof demonstrates that you’re actually more likely to get the place if you’re referred, because people prefer to do business with people they know.
If rental prices in your area are very high, you may find that you’d have a lower monthly payment if you had a mortgage instead.
Stuck on that downpayment? It may be easier to qualify than you think—especially if you’re a first-time homebuyer. Some programs offer loans that require a downpayment as low as 3.5% for first-time buyers, and if you’re in a rural area, check out the 0% down USDA loan. Also don’t forget to look into first-time homebuyer programs in your state, county, and city. Many offer grants or forgivable loans to assist first-time buyers with making their downpayments.
If you're buying:
Shop around for your mortgage
When mortgage rates went up, buying a home became less affordable for anyone who needed a mortgage to do it. However, getting a lower rate can be as simple as shopping around beyond that first quote. According to Freddie Mac, you’re likely to save $1,500 if you get just one more quote—and if you get four or more, you can save more than $5,000.
Don’t forget to look into unconventional loan types, too, such as the FHA loan or the USDA loan for lower rates and/or lower down payment requirements.
Consider a fixer-upper
If you’ve been looking for a fully-renovated, turn-key home, you’re likely seeing some of the highest prices your market has to offer. Instead, try checking out homes that need updating. This is important—you’re not looking for a money pit with lots of issues. But if you find a home that is structurally sound but has dated or less-than-perfect aesthetics, you’ll likely have the opportunity to buy a good house at a lower price. Another benefit? You’ll be able to make this place truly your own when you update it to your taste later.
Look outside your preferred location
This can be as dramatic a change as relocating to a different state or as simple as checking out the neighborhood a few blocks over.
If the cost of living in your city is very high, and you don’t have a lot keeping you there, it could be time to consider a move. This tactic is especially popular with people who work from home and can take their employment with them. Look for cities with a lower cost of housing that also meet your needs in other ways, such as the accessibility of your favorite hobbies, social activities, and lifestyle factors like walkability.
If you want to stay in your current city, try broadening the scope of your search (especially if it’s been narrow). Sometimes looking for a home just a few minutes outside a very popular location can result in significantly lower rental prices, while the convenience isn’t markedly different.
Get in touch with an experienced real estate agent
Real estate agents are experts in their local real estate markets, and that means they can help you find what you’re looking for—even when it seems impossible. Look for someone with significant experience in your location and within your budget. Where do you find that info? Check out their website, their reviews, and give them a call. Someone who specializes in luxury real estate probably won’t be the best bet—but someone who frequently buys and sells real estate in your budget will have a great network they can tap into the find you the home you need.