American Dream of Home Ownership a Costly Nightmare for Struggling Millennials

For Sale signs stand in front of houses in a neighborhood in Davenport, Florida, June 29. REuters

This article was originally published on the Motley Fool.

The American Dream, defined as the ability of every U.S. citizen to achieve success and prosperity through hard work and determination, has always involved the pursuit of homeownership. Owning your own home has often been viewed as a sign of financial success, and quite a few families use the equity built in a primary residence over time to help fund retirement.

But the American Dream isn't the same for millennials as it was for their parents. The pursuit of homeownership in America is waning: Since the first quarter of 2009, homeownership rates for those younger than 35 have fallen from 39.8 percent to 34.2 percent in the first quarter of 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau data via USA Today. And data released a week ago by real estate database company Zillow points to an even more frightening picture that could doom homeownership rates in America.

According to Zillow's latest report, 86 percent of current renters don't have the income to purchase a home, or a high enough credit score to obtain financing. Almost half of all survey-takers noted that they were already spending at least 30 percent of the pre-tax income on rent, making it nearly impossible to qualify for financing on a home.

This survey comes at a time when homeownership in the United States is down to 63.4 percent, a 48-year low, and a steady decline from the 69 percent homeownership rate hit 12 years ago. At the same time, we're also witnessing a near-40-year low in vacancy rates for rentals. Since 1995, monthly median asking rent for vacant units has doubled from about $425 to $850.

What's caused this precipitous decline in homeownership among millennials and Americans as a whole?

Part of the blame rests with weaker-than-expected wage growth. Nominal wages in the U.S. rose by 727 percent from 1964 to 2014 based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics via the Pew Research Center. However, inflation-adjusted real-wage growth in constant 2014 dollars grew only 7 percent over the same time span. In the meantime, numerous other costs have outpaced wage growth, such as medical costs, college tuition costs, and even, in some markets, home prices and rental inflation. Without real income growth, individuals and families are struggling to gather the income needed to afford homes.

Secondly, as Zillow's report points out, there are still quite a few people with subpar credit scores, which could keep them from getting loans, or even credit cards. Data from ValuePenguin, a website devoted to aiding consumers in making smart consumer spending decisions, shows that the average credit score in the U.S. in 2015 was 695, up modestly from 687 in 2009 and 2010. The credit score scale ranges from a low of 300 to a high of 850, with prime candidates being 680 and above, near-prime candidates hovering in the 620-680 range, and subprime candidates having a score under 620. As of 2014, just 48.9 percent of all Americans had prime credit scores, leaving the remainder of adults questionable when it comes to being able to secure home loans. It's also worth pointing out that people aged 39 and younger had nearly a 40 percent chance of a subprime credit score, compared to just 16 percent and 8 percent for those ages 60 to 69 and 70+, respectively.

Lastly, Americans are poor savers, and that's a problem when lenders typically require a sizable down payment in order to purchase a home. The June 2016 personal savings rate was just 5.3 percent, a far cry from what the citizens of other developed countries are socking away in savings. Furthermore, a GOBankingRates survey from March 2016 showed that 56 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement, including 33 percent with $0. For millennials, 42.2 percent had nothing in retirement savings, and another 29.8 percent had less than $10,000.

The biggest problems for millennials are a lack of wage growth, poor credit scores, and insufficient savings. Thus, the easiest way to homeownership is to tackle these problems head-on.

Strongly consider college

Millennials should strongly consider working in job fields that have strong long-term demand, as well as go to college to obtain at least a bachelor's degree. Millennials between the ages of 25 to 32 with a high school diploma earned a median of $28,000 in 2012 dollars according to Pew. By comparison, same-age millennials with at least a four-year bachelor's degree or higher earned a median of $45,500 per year in 2012 dollars. That can be a huge difference over one's lifetime.

Also, the individual with a degree would presumably have a better chance at business advancement over an individual without a degree, providing more opportunity for socioeconomic advancement. The key is in finding a college that gives you the best return on investment. College tuition price isn't necessarily indicative of return, so make sure you do your homework on colleges that fit your major of choice.

Maintain a good credit score

Secondly, millennials (and really all Americans for that matter) need to understand that their credit scores are important, so they should strive to improve them as much as possible. Remember, credit scores don't just affect whether you can obtain a loan or help set your lending rate. They can also affect the ability to rent, as well as get a job, since landlords and employers can check your credit score.

The most obvious way to positively impact a credit score is to pay bills on time. Payment history counts as approximately 35 percent of a credit score. It's also necessary to pay close attention to how credit is used, with credit utilization comprising about 30 percent of a FICO score. Maxing out credit cards, or getting anywhere near credit limits, makes you look like a risk to lenders.

Keep a detailed monthly budget

Lastly, it's pretty clear that millennials need to be working with a household budget more often based on their low savings rates. Without a budget, millennials will likely struggle to understand their incoming and outgoing cash flows; and without this understanding it's impossible to optimally save money for a home, or retirement for that matter.

The good news is that budgeting tools can be found in abundance online. In a matter of 30 minutes anyone can have a working budget and plan in place to get financial goals on track.