Like the proverbial troubled middle child, baby boomers born in the '50s have fared less well in housing than those born in the decades just before and after.

A new study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that the first generation of baby boomers - those born in the 1940s - had all the advantages, just as many first-born children do.And although the last round of boomers - born in the 1960s - haven't done as well as the oldest, they nevertheless have surpassed the unlucky middle group.

"Luck" is the operative word here. The study noted that the three boomer groups "faced quite different economic conditions when they reached the typical first-time homebuying ages of 25 to 34.

Boomers born before 1950 reached their prime homebuying years in the 1970s, a heady time in real estate when houses were widely available and affordable and rose quickly in value. Young families gobbled them up.

Today, those homeowners are in or nearing their 50s. They have not only the highest homeownership rates of any boomers but also match the generation born in the '30s. "This is remarkable," the Joint Center says, "given that a much larger share of the baby boomers are divorced, separated or never married," all of which makes affording a house more difficult.

Thanks to the huge price inflation of the early 1980s and the equally grand stock market during the decade, "the older boomers are living in more expensive homes and enjoying greater wealth than the preceding generation."

Unfortunately, the situation was different for boomers born in the 1950s, who reached their prime homebuying years in the '80s when "the cost of homeowner-ship . . . soared to post-war highs." Those boomers, now in their late 30s to mid-40s, "still haven't caught up to the ownership rates or average house values that the oldest boomers had achieved at a comparable point in their lives."

Worse still, many of these boomers have no advanced education and thus diminished earning power. "In combination, lower relative earning and delays in achieving homeownership have also limited the ability of middle boomers to accumulate wealth."

The picture is brighter for the youngest boomers - those born in the '60s and now in their late 20s to late 30s. Their prime homebuying years - right now - are occurring in a great economy, with low inflation, low interest rates and moderate housing prices.

As a result, this group has not only achieved the same rates of homeowner-ship as boomers born in the '50s, "the youngest boomers live in larger homes with higher average house values."

As for the future, the report holds out hope that today's continuing low mortgage interest rates and innovations in mortgage financing will prove beneficial to those who have been dealt a poor hand by the timing of birth and others who have not done as well as their age cohorts.

On the downside, though, the report notes that among those now 25 to 34, only 55 percent have a college education. The rest - 45 percent "have no advanced education and therefore (are) more at risk of being unable to afford homeownership.

"Blacks and Hispanics, who have lower average levels of educational attainment than whites, are especially disadvantaged by the erosion in wages among less educated workers."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Homeownership

Chart shows how each generation has done in homeownership and income on average compared with the generation immediately preceding. The income is stated in 1997 dollars.

At age 45-54 Oldest boomers in 1995 vs. Pre-boomers in 1985

Homeownership 75.5% 75.2%

Household income $51,000 $48,523

House Value $105,315 $101,431

At age 35-44 Middle boomers in 1995 vs. Oldest boomers in 1985

Homeownership 65.5% 68%

Household income $42,021 $45,931

House value $100,050 $102,923

At age 25-34 Youngest boomers in 1995 vs. Middle boomers in 1985

Homeownership 45.4% 45.5%

Household income $35,745 $36,459

House value $89,518 $89,515

Source: Joint Center for Housing Studies tabulations of the 1985 and 1995 American Housing Surveys and the 1985 and 1995 Current Population Surveys.