Since the start of the pandemic, home prices in the U.S. have increased by an astonishing 40 percent. The New York-Northern New Jersey region saw a similar meteoric rise, as home prices shot up by 30 percent or more almost everywhere—even in upstate New York, where economic growth was sluggish well before the pandemic hit. New York City is the exception, where home price growth was less than half that pace. Indeed, home prices actually declined in Manhattan early in the pandemic, though they have rebounded markedly since. Much of the region’s home price boom can be traced to the rise in remote work, which increased the already strong demand for housing at a time when housing inventories were low and declining. Home price increases have largely outpaced income gains through the pandemic boom, resulting in a reduction in housing affordability in the region. However, with mortgage rates rising, it appears that the region’s housing boom is waning, as it is for the nation as a whole, with prices leveling off, though the inventory of available homes remains historically low.
Tight inventories of homes for sale combined with strong demand pushed up national house prices by an eye-popping 19 percent, year over year, in January 2022. This surge in house prices created concerns that first-time buyers would increasingly be priced out of owning a home. However, using our Consumer Credit Panel, which is based on anonymized Equifax credit report data, we find that the share of purchase mortgages going to first-time buyers actually increased slightly from 2020 to 2021.
During the pandemic, national home values and housing activity soared as mortgage rates declined to historic lows. Under the canonical “user cost” house price model, home values are held to be very sensitive to interest rates, especially at low interest rate levels. A calibration of this model can account for the house price boom with the observed decline in interest rates. But empirically, we find that home values are nowhere near as sensitive to interest rates as the user cost model predicts. This lower sensitivity is also found in prior economic research. Thus, the historical experience suggests that lower interest rates can only account for a tiny fraction of the pandemic house price boom. Instead, we find more scope for lower interest rates to explain the rise in housing activity, both sales and construction.
Households in the New York-northern New Jersey region were spared the worst of the housing bust and have generally experienced less financial stress than average over the past several years.