Homes in Murray on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. | Photo by Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Will Utah home prices drop as a result of the ‘silver tsunami’?

Homes in Murray on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. | Photo by Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
Homes in Murray on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. | Photo by Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

It’s been said that “demographics is destiny.” From a housing perspective, economist and demographer Dejan Eskic—a senior research fellow specializing in housing at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute—says the destiny of the housing market throughout the 2020s has been driven by the arrival of millennials.

“The next decade will be all about retiring seniors and where they will go,” he continues. 

Eskic is referring to an idea posited by housing industry observers in recent years: the coming wave of downsizing baby boomers will free up enough housing inventory in short order to make home prices more affordable for those approaching the average first-time homebuying age of 33—at a time when surging home prices in Utah have never been less affordable

As with so many issues confronting boomers and their grandchildren’s generations, the topic is a polarizing one, though many experts tend to agree that this downsizing “silver tsunami”—as it’s come to be called—may be significant in some geographies. 

Utah will not be one of them.  

The first serious bit of research into the market impact of boomer aging was published by Zillow in 2019. It ranked the 58 largest metropolitan areas in the United States by the degree to which senior downsizing would impact their housing markets over the subsequent 18 years, the time by which most of the boomer generation will have reached retirement age. The study based its estimates on U.S. Census data and lifespan actuarial tables to project what portion of boomer homes will be put up for sale during the analysis period, either due to the occupants downsizing or dying. 

The resulting ranking saw common retirement destinations like Tampa, Tucson and Miami at the top—in the mid-30 percent range—and Metro Salt Lake dead last, at about 19 percent. A visualization of the data reveals the kind of orderly distribution one expects when quantifying complex, natural systems—until you reach the bottom, where the data seem to fall off a very unnatural cliff. 

Something demographically anomalous is going on in Utah for the state to be such an outlier. 

Demographic anomaly #1: Utah boomers are seriously outnumbered.

Utah is the youngest of all 50 states by far, with a median age of 32, compared to 39 nationwide. As a result, Utah leads the nation in the portion of our population under the age of 25. We come in last in a ranking of the portion aged 65 and older at just 15 percent. Looking at raw numbers, there are more than two Utahns between the ages of 19 and 34 for every one Utahn aged 65 or older. No other state comes close to matching that ratio. 

Given that the proportion of Utahns over age 65 is especially low, it should come as no surprise that, according to U.S. Census and AARP data compiled by Construction Coverage, Utah also ranks last in the nation for the proportion of homes owned by that group, at 30 percent. However, a closer look tells a very different story: In Utah, the ratio of homes owned by boomers to population share is the highest of all 50 states, meaning boomers own the smallest proportion of homes in Utah but have the highest rate of home ownership in the country. 

Demographic anomaly #2: Utah families stay close.

According to U.S. Census data, Utah has the nation’s 12th highest percentage of multigenerational households (which is defined by three or more generations living together) at about 4 percent. Meanwhile, Zillow’s Home Value Index for Q4 2023 ranks Utah 7th nationally, at about $500,000 and rising rapidly, compared to the national average of $340,000.

Adam Kirkham, president of the Utah Association of Realtors, sees these joint phenomena of families staying close combined with skyrocketing housing costs manifesting themselves in a way that is as relevant as it is sadly ironic.

“A lot of Utah baby boomers are delaying the expected transition out of their homes because they have family members—often their grandchildren and great-grandchildren—living with them, occupying otherwise empty rooms because those younger generations either can’t afford or can’t find a place of their own,” Kirkham says, adding that this has the knock-on effect of making it easier for boomers to remain in their legacy homes, given the family support they’ll be able to lean on.

“There is so much pent-up demand for housing in Utah, this new supply we anticipate coming to market over a 10 or more year period will probably not move the needle much, if at all.”

Demographic anomaly #3: Utah’s unusually strong net in-migration means more competition.

“Population growth in Utah has traditionally come from childbirth, but for the last two years, 61 percent of our population growth came from job-related in-migration, and this is really straining the market,” Eskic says. “When you look for housing because your family is growing, your demand time is slow. But when you look for housing because you’re moving here, your demand time is yesterday.”

According to the 2023 Utah Market Updatedata Eskic compiled—the majority of Utah’s in-migration is composed of 20- to 40-year-old professionals arriving from traditionally higher cost-of-living coastal cities just in time to purchase their own first homes and pile on additional competition. 

Demographic anomaly #4: Utah boomers will likely live long, self-sufficient lives.

According to a 2023 study by the United Health Foundation that examined 35 measures of health, seniors in Utah are the healthiest in the nation. We rank in the top quintile for social and economic factors, clinical care, behaviors and health outcomes. 

Most notably, the study finds that seniors in Utah are the least likely to feel socially isolated and the most likely to regularly volunteer. This matters because the link between consistent social contact and longer, healthier lifespans has been conclusively proven—meaning Utah’s boomers will feel less pressure to transition to assisted living.

Setting Utah’s unique demography aside, Eskic doubts the “silver tsunami” will affect housing here for the simple reason that, when spread out over decades, it’ll be experienced as more of a trickle.

“There is so much pent-up demand for housing in Utah, this new supply we anticipate coming to market over a 10 or more year period will probably not move the needle much, if at all. And it gets worse because those who do decide to downsize are going to have their eyes on the same starter homes as these first-time homebuyers,” Eskic says, adding that the high price points of the homes boomers will be leaving behind will be made higher still as most will be in need of updating. 

Kirkham points to another way in which Utah’s housing crisis resembles a snake eating its own tail, in that the problem has become self-reinforcing.

“There are plenty of seniors who are tired of taking care of their big homes with their big yards and want to downsize, but are also finding that a nice replacement is both hard to find and expensive,” he says. “So they don’t leave, ever. When their house does go up for sale, it’s going to be an estate sale.”

According to Eskic, the solution is to increase supply the old-fashioned way: by building it—though not by building it the old-fashioned way. 

“The building community is becoming more proactive and thinking outside the box to reduce their costs to make homes more affordable,” he says. “From a public policy standpoint, governments are looking at ways to reduce the barriers of zoning and permitting. Municipalities are opening up to the idea of allowing factory-built homes, which are orders of magnitude less expensive but don’t conform to the ways cities do their building inspections. The demand is there. Now the public policy issues need to be unlocked.”

Judd Bagley is a Lehi, Utah based marketing and communications professional who launched his career in journalism, temporarily leaving that calling to raise a family. He always vowed to return to journalism, he is.