I’m a millennial who bought a Brooklyn apartment this year, and I was only able to because of the pandemic

Moving, milennial home ownership
Moving: It’s no fun at all.

  • Late last year, in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, my wife and I bought a Brooklyn apartment.
  • After graduating college into the financial crisis, the odds of homeownership were not in our favor.
  • The pandemic forced banks to offer historically low mortgage interest rates and allowed us to buy an apartment.
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For the last decade, as friends and relatives bought homes, my wife and I paid rent.

More specifically, we paid rent in New York City – which is to say we paid a lot of money in rent. So, so much. I try not to think about it, honestly.

We did it because we love living here, and Brooklyn is home. I considered it a necessary evil of living in the greatest city in the world.

But this January, just after the most uneventful New Year’s Eve in New York City history, we closed on a one bedroom Brooklyn co-op apartment. If you’d asked me in January 2020, “Will you ever buy a home in New York City?” the answer would’ve been simple: “No, not unless we win the lottery.”

Real estate prices in New York are notoriously high, of course, but that’s just one of several issues facing potential buyers. Not only is it expensive, but it’s extremely competitive. Before the pandemic hit, just going to see an available place in Brooklyn meant competing against people with, frankly, a lot more money than me. I am never going to outbid someone who makes $500,000 annually.

So, how did a couple of avocado toast-eating, cold brew-swilling, MacBook-using millennials manage to buy a home in Brooklyn?

Millennial homeowners
The avocado toast tastes so much better when you make it in the kitchen of the home you own.

It boils down to several key factors:

1. We are immensely lucky and privileged.

My wife and I graduated from college directly into the 2008/2009 subprime mortgage-spurred market collapse that led to a massive recession. Unlike so many of our peers, we were both tremendously lucky to get jobs directly out of college doing what we went to college to do: I am a journalist and my wife is an environmental scientist. I consider myself particularly lucky in this respect, as the media business isn’t known for its stability.

We are also both white Americans, which confers a variety of privileges throughout our lives. Literally everything was easier because of these factors, and must be acknowledged up front.

Because we were lucky enough to have steady employment for years after college, we had good credit scores from years of paying bills on time. That steady employment history coupled with good credit scores meant we were easily pre-qualified for home loans at low rates.

Notably, we don’t have kids, and we saved money steadily for several years before beginning this process.

2. The pandemic.

QUEENS, NEW YORK - MARCH 30: Two members of the Fire Department of New York"u2019s Emergency Medical Team wheel in a patient with potentially fatal coronavirus to the Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City on March 30, 2020. New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, putting historic pressure on a world-renowned healthcare system as the number of confirmed cases in the area grows. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Two members of the Fire Department of New York Emergency Medical Team wheel in a patient with potentially fatal coronavirus to the Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, New York City on March 30, 2020. New York City was the epicenter of the American coronavirus outbreak.

Above all else, the global pandemic was the most immediate reason we were able to buy an apartment.

If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, the housing market wouldn’t have been in the gutter. If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, we would’ve had to compete with crowds of interested buyers. If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, mortgage rates would’ve priced us out of the market.

It’s horrifically sad that this is the case, but it’s very much the truth. We locked in a 30-year fixed-rate home loan at a 2.75% interest rate. That is a historically low rate, and enables us to afford the monthly payments. In fact, our monthly payment is just a touch higher than our last rent price.

Unlike rent, though, our mortgage price doesn’t increase over time. If we choose to move, we can sell the place and are likely to earn some money on the sale thanks to Brooklyn’s already rebounding real estate market. The benefits of homeownership over renting, at least in this respect, are so profound that they’re almost comical. In 10 years, when our mortgage is the same but average NYC rent prices have increased dramatically, we’ll really feel the difference.

3. Timing was critical.

In mid-August 2020, about five months into pandemic lockdowns, a really obnoxious piece was published in the New York Post where a former hedge fund manager Manhattanite declared New York City “dead forever” because he saw a video of Black Lives Matter protesters trying to break into his skyscraper. It was part of a gaggle of trend pieces that summer in which panicked rich people speculated that the pandemic would be the end of New York City.

That struck me as the perfect time to start looking for apartments: If the rich are fleeing, and the home loan rate is low, I figured, maybe there would be a chance for us.

It turns out that was more or less accurate: We only saw five, maybe six places, and we saw them at our leisure. Because of the pandemic, all showings were by appointment only, so there was no pressure to outbid other buyers on the spot.

Also because of the pandemic, a lot of people in our situation – married millennials in their mid-30s – were fleeing to the suburbs. It was as close as Brooklyn gets to a buyer’s market for a young-ish couple.

In the end, our offer was accepted for (slightly) below the listing price. For what we paid for a one bedroom apartment, we could own a pretty nice suburban home. But we don’t want a pretty nice suburban home, and we didn’t have to settle for one.

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Homeowners in Portugal are getting paid to have mortgages as negative rates spread

Aerial view of Funchal with traditional cable car above the city, in Madeira island, Portugal
A cable car in Portugal perhaps floats above some of those mortgage holders with negative rates.

  • In Portugal, mortgage holders are seeing negative rates – meaning they’re getting paid by their banks.
  • What was supposed to be a rare phenomenon has likely increased during the pandemic.
  • Meanwhile, home-buying in the US has become expensive and difficult throughout the pandemic.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

How would you like to be paid to have a mortgage? Maybe you should buy a house in Portugal.

Some mortgage holders actually have negative mortgage rates – meaning their banks pay them interest. The Wall Street Journal’s Patricia Kowsmann reported on the phenomenon, which was rare pre-pandemic. Rates were originally allowed that low a few years back to help bolster the economy.

But in Portugal, mortgages are increasingly seeing negative rates, a consequence of low interest rates in general across the developed world. One consumer-rights group, Deco, told the WSJ that it estimated more than 30,000 mortgages had negative rates back in 2019, but that has more than doubled now. BPI, the bank for one of the negative mortgage holders profiled, said it has paid out over 1 million pounds in interest.

The negative rates aren’t just in Portugal; some mortgage holders in Denmark are also increasingly seeing interest. However, banks there have begun administering fees for deposits; in many instances, according to the WSJ, the fees can offset the interest that the mortgage holders are receiving.

Meanwhile, in the US, prospective buyers should be prepared to pay more than the asking price, as supply stays low and goes quickly. As Insider’s Taylor Borden wrote: “It’s actually a horrible time to buy a house.”

Yes, Borden writes, American mortgage rates are low, but prices are high, effectively pushing the American dream of homeownership out of reach. Also, as the American economy has started reopening this spring, mortgage rates have gone back above 3% again, and seem likely to keep rising.

But even for the lucky mortgage holders of Portugal, it’s not all smooth sailing. One person that the WSJ spoke to, Paula Cristina Santos, has had to halt her own plans for buying a house. One reason why: The charge from her bank to get a new mortgage is just too high – and can’t compare to her current negative rate.

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US mortgage rates hit a 9-month high – and they’ve been climbing since January as inflation fears rise

Model homes and for sale signs line the streets as construction continues at a housing plan in Zelienople, Pa., Wednesday, March 18, 2020.  U.S. new home sales fell 4.4% in February with bigger declines expected in coming months as the coronavirus puts a major crimp on home sales. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Model homes and for sale signs line the streets as construction continues at a housing plan in Zelienople, Pa., Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

  • The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate rose to 3.09% this week, its highest level since June.
  • Rates have been rising since January as markets gird for economic reopening and stronger inflation.
  • Still, demand for homes is handily outstripping supply as new construction fails to accelerate.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Mortgage rates continue to climb in the US as concerns of rising inflation counter past months’ historically low borrowing costs.

The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate rose to 3.09% this week, according to data from Freddie Mac. That’s the highest level since late June and compares to a reading of 3.05% one week prior. Still, the 30-year rate average sits well below its year-ago level of 3.65%.

The average 15-year fixed mortgage rate rose to 2.4% from 2.38% last week to hit, hitting its highest point since September.

Mortgage rates have steadily risen since January as investors position for stronger inflation as the economy rebounds. Treasury yields underpin a wide range of borrowing rates including those for home loans, and the recent sell-off in government bonds placed upward pressure on mortgage rates. The 10-year yield rose to a 14-month high following the Federal Reserve’s March policy meeting on Wednesday, signaling rates will trend higher in the coming weeks.

The trend hasn’t yet pushed potential buyers out of the market, Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac, said in a statement. While the 30-year average rate now sits well above its January floor of 2.65%, borrowing costs are still relatively low. Robust demand for new homes also signals the housing market boom has plenty of staying power, the economists said.

“Residential construction has declined for two consecutive months and given the very low inventory environment, competition among potential homebuyers is a challenging reality, especially for first-time homebuyers,” Khater added.

More barriers than just higher mortgage rates

The housing market was one of the few pockets of the economy to see activity surge through the pandemic. The Federal Reserve’s decision to cut interest rates to record lows one year ago dragged mortgage rates to historically low levels and spurred fresh demand.

But while interest rates remain near zero, mortgage rates have been more closely tracking Treasury yields. The near-zero rates that sparked the housing boom are no longer its primary driver.

New hurdles have emerged from the strained relationship between buyers and builders. Home prices shot higher as demand handily outstripped supply. And though rates have risen through the spring, contractors are still unable to keep up with the market.

That supply-demand imbalance is now forcing potential homebuyers to pay above listing prices just to secure a purchase. The sale-to-list price ratio tracked by Redfin rose to 100.1% for the week that ended March 7, its highest level since data collection began in 2016. The firm also found median sales prices for newly listed homes reached a record high and that new listings were down 17% year-over-year.

Even pricier materials are contributing to soaring home costs. The National Association of Homebuilders said last month that factory shutdowns last March slammed lumber supply chains and led to a spike in the commodity’s price. Elevated lumber costs now add roughly $24,000 to the price of a new home, NAHB Chairman Chuck Fowke told HousingWire.

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US home prices rose at a record pace in the 4th quarter, surpassing the previous peak in 2005

housing expensive

The median price of a single-family home climbed 14.9% to $315,000 in the fourth quarter, according to the National Association of Realtors.

That’s the fastest pace of growth on record, surpassing the top from the last housing boom in 2005, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Every single metro area tracked by the NAR saw home prices grow from a year ago, while 88% (161) of the metros saw double-digit increases, compared to just 115 metros in the third quarter. It’s a sign of the continued housing boom in the US as mortgage rates remain in record-low territory.

The area with the highest price gain was Bridgeport, Connecticut, where prices soared 39%. By region, the Northeast experienced a 20.7% price increase, followed by the West at 15.5%, the Midwest at 15.1% and finally the South at 14.0%.

“Mortgage rates reached record lows, thereby driving up the demand,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “At the same time, inventory levels also reached record lows, leading to grim inventory conditions of insufficient supply in the fourth quarter.”

While Yun noted that low mortgage rates are helping Americans afford their monthly payments, he said that large home price spikes could soon become detrimental to homebuyers. 

“The average, working family is struggling to contend with home prices that are rising much faster than income,” he said. “This sidelines a consumer from becoming an actual buyer, causing them to miss out on accumulating wealth from homeownership.”

The NAR found that families typically spent 14.8% of their income on mortgage payments, compared to 14.9% one year ago. With higher home prices, the average monthly mortgage payment marginally rose to $1,040 from $1,020, even as mortgage rates dropped significantly. 

Read more: Barclays says buy these 33 beaten-down stocks that are perfectly poised to capitalize on the reopening of the economy in the years ahead

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