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Mortgage Affordability – 2005 Revisited

About 17 years ago (back in 2005) when mortgage interest rates were around 6% I posted an article called How interest rates can drastically affect real estate prices. At the time I was already amazed by the low interest rates and was concerned they would go up and how it would affect people. It’s finally started to hitting us, and what’s even more challenging is that the percentage increases per 1% is higher than it was in 2005 because interests are so much lower today than back then. In other words going from 6% to 7% is an increase in monthly payment of about 10% whereas going from 3% to 4% is an increase of between 13% and 14%. In fact at the time I hadn’t even calculated below 4% because I never thought it would go that low because that was below the historical inflation rate. We definitely live in different times.

In the last few months we’ve just gone from 3% to about 6%. I’m going to use 30 year fixed interest rate because it’s a lot easier as I can just use the FRED data. In any case that’s a 3% increase in a matter of months. That’s also double the interest rate! Looking at the chart from my previous article about how interest rates affect real estate prices, someone who could afford a $1000/mth mortgage back in the summer of this year could afford up to about $235k mortgage whereas today that translates into a $167k mortgage. That’s a huge drop of about almost 29% affordability. If you look at the median house price across the US of $429k (as of early 2022) then that means a drop of $124k, or a drop from $429k to about $305k. That’s very significant.

That was at the time while the market was hot and people were buying. What happens today when people are struggling financially and buying is much much lower? Where you just can’t flip your house or refinance on a higher valuation? If you look on Reddit there are a lot of stories of people on variable interest rates seeing large increases in their monthly mortgage payments. We’re talking multiple hundreds a month to over a thousand dollars more per month. That hurts.

Let’s do the reverse and let’s calculate the difference in monthly payments on a mortgage that was previously paying $1000/mth at 3% interest. We’re still going to use the 30 year fixed mortgage but the math still applies to variable rate mortgages as well as people who need to refinance. That being said a $1000/mth mortgage at 3% affords you a mortgage amount of about $235k. If we take that same $235k and apply a 6% interest rate then the payments balloon to a little over $1400/mth a month for a 40% increase in your monthly payments.

If we extrapolate that to the median house price (assuming 0% down to make the math easier) then that means a mortgage of $429k with a monthly payment of a little over $1800/mth. Today that has now exploded to $2572/mth for an increase of $772/mth. That’s very significant for the vast majority of people. That’s an increase of almost 43%! It’s not just the percentage but the absolute amount of $772/mth is by itself very significant considering the annual median household in the United States is $70,784 (as of 2021). That’s an increase of over 10% of their salary going to their mortgage. And that’s before taxes! If you do the math after taxes it’s probably 15-20% and higher. Ignoring that the median income generally cannot afford the median house, but if it could then the math would be even more challenging.

And we haven’t even started to touch on the topic of those mortgages which keep the monthly payments the same but add on the difference in payments to the mortgage amount. Meaning that if your monthly payment was suppose to go from $1000/mth to say $1400/mth than that $400/mth difference just gets tacked onto the principal amount. Meaning each month your principal is very likely increasing. For a median house that’s an additional $772/mth increase to the mortgage. It won’t be exactly that because of the details but it’s quite significant nonetheless. In other words they would be getting more and more into debt. What happens when they refinance when the mortgage term is up?

And that’s the key. The fallout will take some time to happen. There’s a lot of complexity and variables but there will be a correction, the question is more of when exactly. The first question is what is the average term of mortgages these days. In other words when are most people due to refinance? Until it comes time to refinance a decent amount of people will be able to muddle through. Not everyone but a lot. But once refinancing hits that’s where it will be very challenging for a lot of people. Especially if interest rates continue to climb as is expected to fight inflation. Yes we’ve pushed back inflation a little bit but I don’t believe that battle is anywhere near over. The other question is how many are on variable rates that can continue to holdout.

In addition as interest rates climb prices of houses have to fall. Prices were so high because affordability was so high because of the historically low interest rates. Aka free money. But in turn when interests go back up that also means house prices will have to drop which in turn means for a lot of people their equity will be decreasing. Instead of refinancing to take out equity of their property they will have to put in balloon payments if they end up being underwater. Can they afford that difference?

The other question is will inflation continue to be higher than interest rates because if it does then that could help out a lot people. So for example if inflation were to be at 10% (an even number) then assuming you had a 10% raise and the interest rate on your mortgage remained at the current 6% then you would actually be ahead. That mortgage would be worth less in 2022 dollars. As a more extreme analogy imagine a $30k mortgage for a house in 1980. $30k today is a much smaller amount then it was in 1980 and would be much more manageable then the median $429k. Of course it won’t be as extreme but when inflation is higher then interest rates it can be challenging. Even more so if salaries rise with inflation, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be the case right now. Nonetheless inflation is having an impact on mortgage affordability.

Seeing as the goal of the Fed is to keep inflation rates in check I believe they will have no choice but to continue raising interest rates until inflation starts to go down, at least in the short term. At the very least keeping it higher then we’ve been used to for many years until inflation starts to get more reasonable. And that’s relative, even today’s “high” interest rates should be considered historically low interest rates. Pre-2000 interest rates were pretty much always above the current rate of 6%. The real question is how will this all play out in terms of interest rates and inflation as they both have very big impacts on loans and mortgages. The speed and scale at which they are moving doesn’t give the markets the chance to easily absorb the changes. This is leading to a lot of chaos and distress right now.

On a positive note there will be a lot of buying opportunities in the near future for those who position themselves well. Even with all the doom and gloom, or in fact because of the doom and gloom, there will be some great opportunities. As the saying goes, fortunes are made and lost in times of chaos, and we are clearly heading in such a time. Not that 2020-2022 were easy times, I just suspect that 2023 will be more interesting in terms of the impacts interest rates and inflation will have on the markets (financial and real estate). We’re about to see the true costs of all the recent money printing and the long term low interest rates. The can was kicked down the road but we’re now getting near the end of the road and can’t really keep kicking it much further without risking high inflation which is a much bigger and worse problem. Some even speculate a once in a generation market crash, a super cycle if you will. Whatever happens the thing to remember is that when there is chaos there is always good opportunities for both failures and much much more importantly successes. May you be one of the successful stories of 2023!

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