While some people disdain home ownership, housing experts have concluded that most of the nation's 34 million renters have no choice - they cannot afford to buy.
A recent study based on housing prices and incomes in 1986 found that fewer than 15 percent of renters had enough money to qualify for a mortgage on a typical starter home.Since housing prices have increased faster than incomes in many parts of the country since 1986, it's likely that the percentage who can afford to buy is no higher today.
The number of actual buyers supports this conclusion. Last year, 4.4 million homes were sold in the United States, about 1.5 million to first-time homebuyers.
Even if all the first-time buyers had been renters, that would mean only 4.5 percent of the country's 34 million renters bought homes last year.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University noted in a recent report that a house is the single largest asset many Americans possess and that many people accumulate most of their wealth through a buildup in home equity and the appreciation of housing prices.
"To the extent that many young renters delay becoming homeowners . . . they are locked out of a primary savings vehicle," the Joint Center said. "This is the vicious circle would-be buyers face: lack of savings and wealth prevent them from securing a home, the very asset that has proven to be the best source of wealth accumulation for the vast majority of American households."
Indeed, a survey of consumer finance by the Federal Reserve Board shows that American homeowners had a median net worth of $86,500 in 1989 compared with $5,100 for renters.
This stark difference is true across all age groups, and across race lines.
For example, young renters (aged 25 to 34) had median household incomes of $20,350 in 1989 and an estimated net worth of $5,000. Homeowners in the same age group had median household incomes of $33,900 and net worth of $40,500. More than half the wealth accumulated by the young homeowners was home equity - the money they had invested in their home, coupled with price appreciation.
The wealth-building qualities of homeownership are especially clear when black owners are considered as a separate group.
Black homeowners had a median household income of only $18,089 in 1989, which is lower than the median income of all renters - $19,220. Despite their income handicap, black homeowners managed to accumulate a median net worth of $38,300 in 1989, far more than the $5,100 median net worth of all renters, including whites.
The black homeowners accumulated almost all their wealth - $30,600 of the $38,300 - through growth in home equity.
Black renters are by far the poorest of any group. They have a median household income of only $13,000 and a median net worth of just $735. Since blacks have a much lower rate of home-ownership than whites - 43.5 percent vs. 67.4 percent in 1987 - the disparity in wealth between whites and blacks is likely to grow.
While home prices are not expected to rise in the 1990s at the hot pace set in the '80s, home-ownership is still the easiest and surest way for most people to accumulate wealth.
"This is no time to cut back on efforts to expand home ownership opportunities," the Joint Center study said.
"The continuing inability of black households, young households or other households with limited current wealth to qualify for a mortgage to buy a home not only denies these households the ongoing financial advantages of home-ownership, but ultimately serves to perpetuate the inequality in wealth that exists today."