First-time buyers struggle to join recovery

Inventory shortage hampers effort to beat looming rise in interest rates


Philadelphians Luis Valenti, 25, and Eleonora Barbieri, 26, are getting married July 14.

If planning a wedding doesn’t seem stressful enough, the couple are closing on Wednesday on their first house, a duplex listed at $155,000.

Two major events in the lives of anyone, and just four days apart.

“With the housing recovery and interest rates going up, we thought the time was right,” said Mr. Valenti, who works in the financial industry.

They also wanted to lock into an FHA loan by June 1, before the rules changed, Ms. Barbieri said.

Since then, all loans with less than 10 percent down require that mortgage insurance be paid for the life of the loan. In addition, mortgage insurance will no longer be canceled when the loan balance is 78 percent of the original amount.

They beat the deadline.

First-time buyers such as Mr. Valenti and Ms. Barbieri are key to the health of residential real estate. So there is concern, at least on the national level, that there might not be enough of them to sustain the housing recovery.

This buyer segment is so important, in fact, that the National Association of Realtors surveys 3,000 members monthly for the latest percentages.

The April survey, said spokesman Walt Molony, put first-time buyers at 29 percent, “weaker than the historic norm” of 40 percent.

Other research organizations report similar findings. Tight credit, competition with investors for lower-end properties, and limited inventory typically are cited as reasons.

Economist Kevin Gillen, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute, says that since the housing bubble burst in 2007, “many lower-income home buyers have been effectively cut out of the market.”

“Whether they’re unemployed, underemployed, can’t assemble a sufficient down payment, or can’t get credit, these are problems,” he said, “that disproportionately affect young, first-time home buyers.

“We’ve been left with a housing market composed of relatively wealthier households trading relatively high-priced homes with each other.”

In some areas, though, the numbers of first-timers are increasing. Owing to the inventory shortage, many of them are not having an easy time, however.

Ms. Barbieri said they were lucky to find their three-story duplex in a month.

“A lot of our friends have been trying to buy for six months,” she said, “but have been losing out to other bidders.”

Mickey Pascarella of Keller-Williams Center City, the agent for Mr. Valenti and Ms. Barbieri, said half his clients were first-timers.

Even as first-time-buyer interest rises, fewer houses are up for sale than last year, he said, because they are taken off the market and put into the rental pool, fewer houses are being built, and “there [are] continued seller-equity problems.