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Insights on the challenges for finding affordable housing in Utah, from high prices to interest rates.

We still can’t afford houses in Utah

We still can’t afford houses in Utah

Insights on the challenges for young prospective homebuyers, from high prices to interest rates.

BY HEATHER BEERS

We still can’t afford houses in Utah

Insights on the challenges for young prospective homebuyers, from high prices to interest rates.

BY HEATHER BEERS

Dejan Eskic and his wife were ready to make the leap from renting to buying, but once they started looking, they realized it wasn’t going to be easy. With home prices rising, Eskic says he and his wife ended up living with in-laws for 18 months to find the right home and save up enough money. 

The Eskics are not alone. With current home prices and interest rates, the leap from renting to homeownership can feel like a widening chasm, leaving young people wondering if they’ll ever be able to buy a home of their own. 

To get an idea of where things have been and where they are now, the median home price in Salt Lake County in 2019 was $342,000. As of June 2022, that number was $630,000, according to Dave Anderton, communications director for the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. That 84 percent increase is a doozy for Gen Z and Millennials who want to make like all the Gen X-ers and Boomers did and own a home in their 20s or 30s. 

ICYMI, 2020-2022 was a challenging time—all starting with the pandemic. “When Covid started taking hold in March of 2020, we saw homebuyers pull back,” Anderton says. “We thought for sure that 2020 was going to be a year when we went into a recession…But by that summer, things turned right around. I don’t know if Covid had much to do with it—people deciding they didn’t want to live in the city or move to another state—but we saw sales explode.”

In July 2020, Anderton says, Salt Lake County saw the most home sales ever. Home prices continued to climb throughout 2021 and into 2022.

The competition was so fierce that a home could go on the market and there would be several, if not dozens, of offers within hours. Homes were selling within one to three days rather than a few weeks. 

Then there was what Andrea Chapman Summerhays and Greg Summerhays, realtors with Chapman Richard and Associates, call the “appraisal gap.” Buyers were offering up to tens of thousands of dollars over a home’s appraisal value just to beat out other offers.  

The Summerhays, who work as a husband-and-wife team, were able to get their younger clients into homes during the wild days of 2020 through early 2022, but not without a lot of patience and ingenuity. “In that market, our buyers needed three buckets: down payment money, money to pay up and over the appraisal, and money for closing costs,” Greg says. “We played around with those buckets of money. Maybe we would put a little less on the down payment and utilize some of their savings to pay the appraisal gap or to pay some of those closing costs. Luckily, we were also able to work with some of their parents, who pitched in to help with the down payment or appraisal gap. It was really competitive. Young homebuyers had to put a lot of offers in to get accepted.”

Greg compares that to where we are today, explaining that the frenzy has cooled and things are shifting. He says new home construction is starting to offer incentives, and sellers are willing to make concessions they didn’t need to over the last couple of years. 

“With the new conditions, we have higher rates, but we also have the ability to ask sellers for things like money for repairs if we get into an inspection and there are some problems,” Andrea says. 

The higher rates she’s referring to are mortgage rates, which have increased significantly in 2022. In 2020 and 2021, the government’s actions led to rates below 3 percent. As recently as February 2022, rates were at 3.76 percent. But by August, the APR on a 30-year fixed mortgage was fluctuating around 5.5 percent to 5.64 percent

The increase has been due largely to the Federal Reserve’s interest rate adjustments in June and July, designed to curb inflation. Those rate increases impact monthly mortgage payments, and adding even a few hundred dollars a month to that payment can be the difference between getting into a home or not. 

Our experts deliver insights on the challenges for finding affordable housing in Utah, from high prices to interest rates.

Eskic, who recently bought his first home and is a senior research fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Garner Policy Institute, notes homeownership is declining for Utahns. In 2010, 57 percent of Utah households owned a home. The most recent numbers indicate that in 2020, that figure dropped to 51.8 percent.

“Another stat we can look at is how many Utahns cannot afford to buy the median-priced home,” Eskic says. “Pre-pandemic, that was 48 percent in 2019. Today, it’s about 71 percent, meaning they are pretty much priced out. If you’re a renter, your income tends to be lower.”

Before prospective homebuyers feel like all is lost, there is some good news. “We’re returning to a more normal market,” Anderton says. “A year ago [around] this time, we had 2,000 or 3,000 homes for sale in the whole state of Utah. Now, there are 9,500 homes for sale on utahrealestate.com.”

On the building side, more residential building permits were issued in 2021 in Utah than any other year in the history of Utah for all things residential—single-family homes, apartments, condos, and townhomes, Anderton says, continuing, “Our housing deficit is declining. It’s swinging back. I wouldn’t classify it as a buyer’s market yet, but it’s definitely not the seller’s market we saw in ‘20 and ‘21.”

In southern Utah, homebuyers experienced similar trends in the last couple of years. “Washington County is one of the fastest growing areas in the country,” says Emily Merkley, CEO of the Washington County Board of Realtors. “It’s super great in terms of employment, outdoor activities—all those things that draw people to Washington County. St. George sees a lot of vacation home/second home purchases, which means local buyers are competing against buyers who have cash. That has slowed a little bit in Washington County, but I don’t see that going away.”

Merkley says the median home price in Washington County in July was $523,000, up 11 percent from July 2021. For buyers in a lower price range, she says, “We still see some properties coming up on the MLS for $300,000 or less.”

Andrea and Greg encourage young homebuyers not to give up hope. They suggest meeting with lenders and realtors early in the process to get an idea of what buyers can qualify for and how much to save for a down payment. They point to FHA loans, which allow first-time homebuyers to qualify with a lower down payment (as low as 3.5 percent of the home’s value) and a lower credit score (580) compared to conventional loans. 

They also recommend working with attentive lenders and realtors who can advocate for buyers, asking sellers for concessions like covering part of the closing costs or paying down interest rate points. (Mortgage interest rates reached as high as 16.64 percent in 1981 when inflation was similarly high; so hey, the glass is half-full on today’s 5-6 percent rates.)

They also recommend looking at a range of options to fit specific budgets. “If you’re hell-bent on staying on the east side [of the Salt Lake Valley], you’re going to get more of a fixer-upper that’s smaller in square footage and have to do some work on the house,” the Summerhays suggest. “If you’re willing to go to Eagle Mountain or Saratoga Springs, you’re able to get a new house for the same price or close.” 

Above all, Andrea says to think of homes in terms of chapters: the condo or townhome followed by the first three-bedroom house, then the house with the sizable backyard and more bedrooms for a growing family, and finally the patio home for the empty-nest years.

Our experts deliver insights on the challenges for finding affordable housing in Utah, from high prices to interest rates.

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