Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.
This week’s episode is a conversation among NerdWallet’s housing Nerds who discuss home affordability trends in the United States and abroad.
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Prospective home buyers in the U.S. are not alone in their woes about the housing market. Home prices have increased in the United Kingdom and in Canada, too. For example, the average home price in Ontario was about $950,000 in May 2022 — a 50% increase in two years.
The reasons behind the housing affordability crisis in each country are largely the same: increasing demand, decreasing number of homes for sale and rising interest rates.
If you’re in the market, tap resources that can maximize your chances of landing a house. The U.K.’s Lifetime ISA program can accelerate saving for a home, while the Canadian government offers different types of incentives for first-time home buyers. Also consider speaking to a mortgage broker who may be able to tailor a homebuying strategy to your unique circumstances.
If there’s an upside to the affordability housing crisis, it’s that it may produce some necessary and overdue reform: streamlining the homebuilding process, building more affordable homes and restricting real estate investors.
While you wait on the government to pass legislation, continue saving for a down payment and find a trusted real estate agent who can help when you’re ready to buy.
Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I’m Sean Pyles.
This episode, we are digging into home affordability at an international level. I think a lot of folks might be surprised to learn that NerdWallet is actually an international company. We provide personal finance advice to folks in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.
And while each country has its own way of managing finances, there are some common threads from one country to the other, especially when it comes to home affordability and the challenges that prospective home buyers would face.
So this episode, I’m hosting a roundtable discussion with Clay Jarvis from NerdWallet Canada, Brean Horne from NerdWallet UK and Kate Wood from NerdWallet U.S. to discuss what is driving the affordability crisis in their countries, and what consumers can do to overcome the challenges and land a home.
Welcome to Smart Money, everyone.
Brean Horne: Hey, it’s great to be here.
Sean Pyles: Can each of you share a little bit about yourself — maybe where you live, your area of expertise and one thing that you really nerd out about?
Brean Horne: Hello, I’m Brean. I am a U.K. Nerd living in London. I focus on home buying with a particular emphasis on first-time buyers. And I also look at credit scores in debt as well.
When I’m not nerding out about finance, I love all things food- and cooking-related. And now that we’ve got a bit of sun in the U.K., I’m getting back into roller-skating as well.
Clay Jarvis: Cool. My name’s Clay. I’m here in Toronto. I’m one of our relatively new Canadian Nerds.
Professionally, I’ve been nerding out on real estate and mortgages for maybe the last six years. And in my personal life, I’ve been nerding out about music since I bought my first tape at the age of 8.
Sean Pyles: What was the tape?
Clay Jarvis: It was “The Final Countdown” by Europe.
Kate Wood: Oh wow. That’s great.
Clay Jarvis: I got into the hard rock right off the bat.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, that beats mine. My first CD was, embarrassingly enough, Nickelback. So …
Sean Pyles: I know. Yeah, I was …
Clay Jarvis: Did you buy a second one after that?
Sean Pyles: Well, I went off into The Offspring and then more grungy music before shifting hard into ‘80s synth pop. So it’s a bit of my journey.
Kate Wood: Yes, I’m Kate. I live in New England, specifically Connecticut. My focus at NerdWallet is home buying, mortgages and homeownership.
And when I’m not working, I nerd out on trying to fix up my 18th century home — and of course, pro wrestling.
Sean Pyles: That’s quite the combination. Awesome. Well, now let’s get into our conversation. And to start, can each of you lay out what is happening with home affordability in your country? And Brean, let’s start with you.
Brean Horne: Absolutely. So within the U.K., homeownership still remains a huge, important milestone for a lot of prospective buyers. However, affordability is a growing concern.
And over the last 20 years in particular, we’ve seen a decline in the rate of homeownership. So in 2003, 71% of households in England were homeowners. And in 2020, this dropped to 65%.
So we’ve seen house prices across the U.K. grow to record highs. And in March, when our most recent figures came out, the average house price had gone up 9.8% — so around 24,000 pounds, year on year.
And yeah, it’s quite the increase. And we’ve seen them across all the different countries — so Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland as well. And due to house prices rising, it puts a lot more pressure on prospective buyers to create the deposit that they need to get onto the property ladder. So for people within the younger generation, trying to get their first homes, it’s becoming a little bit more of a struggle. And we’re starting to see more people pivot into renting instead.
Sean Pyles: Brean, what’s causing this shift in affordability and the way that people are finding housing?
Brean Horne: There have been multiple things contributing to the affordability crisis in the U.K. One of the largest contributing factors has been a shortage of houses for sale.
What we started to see is that there’s a race for space. And when properties become available, people are flocking to them, because there aren’t many there for the demand that we have. And what we’ve seen is that there’s a growing number of people that actually own second homes, which is also impacting supply.
Another contributing factor has been rising interest rates. The Bank of England’s base rate plummeted during coronavirus to try and stabilize the economy and ensure that everything kept going. So it fell to its lowest rate in history, which meant that borrowing was much cheaper than it ever was before. And since May of 2022, it’s actually been increased to 1%, which has made having a mortgage much more expensive.
A few of the other points that have contributed to the affordability crisis is the general cost of living going up. Wages just haven’t kept up with inflation, and it’s putting pressure on people’s ability to save and put together a deposit.
In the U.K., we also have an aging population, which means that people are living in their homes much longer. So that also contributes to the supply that’s available for the amount of people trying to get onto the property ladder.
Sean Pyles: A lot of these factors, I think, probably sound familiar to folks in our U.S. audience, because it is really difficult for a first-time homeowner to get into the market right now.
And there are a number of folks who are getting second homes. And of course, the interest rate increases are becoming even more difficult for people.
Clay, can you lay out what’s happening in Canada?
Clay Jarvis: Yeah. In a word or two: It sucks. When we use the word “affordable” to talk about housing in Canada, we generally put it in quotation marks, because the market has just run so far beyond what most people can afford.
Our population growth has been really strong the last 10 years, but building just hasn’t kept up with it. And so demand is outstripping supply to a crazy amount.
Then the pandemic rolls around with these record-low interest rates, the same kind of FOMO that you saw in the stock market and in crypto. And it’s just exacerbated a problem that was already horrible.
So let me lay a few stats on you guys, just to let you know what’s going on here. In Ontario — so, that’s where I live in Toronto — Ontario is also home to Ottawa, our federal capital, Niagara Falls — it’s our biggest population center and our hottest real estate market.
So, May 2020: The average price of a residential property was about $630,000 Canadian. May 2022: The average price of a residential property in Ontario was just under $950,000. That’s a 50% increase in two years.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, a massive jump.
Clay Jarvis: Now, Vancouver Island — so just west of Vancouver — used to be this bastion of affordability for people who couldn’t buy in Vancouver and the hot neighborhoods next to it.
Average price May 2021: $642,000; average price May 2022: $840,000. That’s more than a 30% increase in one year.
I’ll just give you one more. In New Brunswick, which is a sleepier province to the east of Quebec — I think it’s just north of Maine or Vermont and probably just as lively. The average price there was up 25% year over year in May.
So it’s a nationwide problem. And just as Brean mentioned, in the U.K. with interest rates rising — same thing’s happening here. Variable rates are up, fixed rates are up and now buyers cannot get the funding needed to pay for these really expensive homes. So they’re in a really tough spot.
Sean Pyles: We’ve seen similar jumps in home prices in the U.S., and it just doesn’t seem sustainable. Are there any signs that things are slowing down in Canada?
Clay Jarvis: Yes. Rising interest rates have really taken some of this steam out of our market. Just in May, it looks like sales were down 22% year over year. That’s according to the Canadian Real Estate Association.
So a lot of the froth is coming out of the market. A lot of the competition that helped drive prices higher has just evaporated, which is going to help prices maybe solidify, maybe soften in some markets.
But the demand is just so high, and the amount of properties available so low that prices just won’t have much room to fall before the people who can get funded can snap them up.
Sean Pyles: Interesting. I feel like we have maybe stolen Kate’s thunder a little bit, because all of the issues that, Clay and Brean, you have described so far are happening here in the U.S. Kate, can you describe what’s going on here?
Kate Wood: We are certainly seeing a lot of these similar conditions in the United States as well. I don’t know that we’ve seen home prices quite as dramatic as the differences Clay was describing, and that astonished me, because home prices in the U.S. have risen drastically over the last couple of years.
And even though there are a lot of prognosticators saying we’re going to see the pace of increases slow down, they are so far above normal levels that that slowing isn’t especially helpful.
The recently released NerdWallet First-Time Home Buyer Metro Affordability Report for the first quarter of 2022 found that nationwide homes were listed at 5.9 times the median income for a first-time buyer.
And since the first quarter of 2020, home prices went up 26% across the country, while at the same time, inventory plunged 62%.
We are seeing more expensive properties, but many, many fewer of them. And these high prices and low inventory are exacerbating difficult conditions for buyers. They are favoring buyers who are willing to take risks, waive contingencies — whether that means buying a home as is, buying it sight unseen — as well as cash buyers, and that does include investors.
Sean Pyles: Well Kate, what strikes me is a similarity between what Brean was describing. In the U.K., interest rates were slashed early in the pandemic. We saw that here in the U.S. Now they’re creeping back up, and that is making home affordability even more difficult for folks. Can you describe what’s happened there?
Kate Wood: We have had similar actions to what Brean described with the Federal Reserve, which is the central bank of the United States, influencing monetary policy, and in particular, in March of 2020, slashing a key interest rate to virtually zero.
And then by the end of 2020, we saw record low mortgage interest rates. Those stayed low for all of 2021, and that was really helping buyers stretch their dollars.
But this year — as we’ve seen inflation that the Federal Reserve had hoped would be transitory become somewhat intractable — they’ve had to change their policies. And we’ve seen mortgage rates rise actually ahead of any of these larger level policy changes.
Interest rates on fixed-rate 30-year mortgages — which, in the United States, that’s the most common type of home loan — have increased almost three percentage points in just a few months. That has created a massive challenge for affordability.
For example, say you are able to afford a $1,200 monthly mortgage payment, and I’m talking just the principal and interest. Two years ago, if you were getting a 3.5% rate, that would allow you to afford a home that was about $267,000.
Kate Wood: As of mid-June, we are now seeing lenders advertising interest rates that are above 6% for these same loans. So this buyer who can afford a $1,200 principal and interest payment each month — that buyer can now just barely afford a $200,000 home. That’s a more than $67,000 drop in buying power.
Sean Pyles: And also folks are going to be pretty hard pressed to find a house that is listed at $200,000 in many markets across the country.
Kate Wood: Absolutely, yes. That’s a tremendous issue. And at the same time, it’s one that is going to become an issue for a larger number of financed buyers, because the more money that you need to spend toward servicing interest, the less of your budget can go toward actually paying for the home.
And so buyers are having to scale back their target price ranges at a time when prices are excessively high.
Sean Pyles: I saw a tweet the other day that said something along the lines of, “To anyone who bought a house in 2020, congratulations on buying your last home ever,” because mortgage rates were so low at that time.
And I actually closed on a house a year ago and I have had that same thought, like, “Where would I ever go?” Because my mortgage is so affordable, and I wouldn’t be able to get as much for my money given the way the market is.
Kate Wood: Yeah. One of my colleagues has actually described this problem as golden handcuffs — that people who were able to either purchase or refinance when rates were extremely low are now in this position where they’re sort of locked into that current loan, because it’s on such good terms.
Sean Pyles: Right. But at least the handcuffs are sparkling though. It looks nice.
Kate Wood: Yeah, they’re glitzy. As someone who did buy a home in 2020, yes, they are a nice touch.
Sean Pyles: Uh-huh, but they do hurt on occasion. OK, well now let’s talk about some resources that are available to folks in each country to maybe mitigate the challenges of becoming a homeowner. Clay, let’s start with you.
Clay Jarvis: One thing I would encourage Canadian home buyers to do — and even American home buyers, home buyers in England — look at resources, either websites or publications that are for real estate investors.
Now you don’t necessarily have to be a real estate investor to use these, but real estate investors are generally very savvy in terms of finding properties and getting them funded.
They might also be able to provide you ideas for generating income with your property that will allow you to qualify for a bigger mortgage.
So keep that in mind — it’s something that I’ve seen help a lot of people who are not investors. You could do that.
There are also a lot of municipal and provincial programs here in Canada to help people buy homes. A lot of them are capped at levels that are probably too low for a lot of properties that are on the market right now.
But if you’re in a smaller market, a quieter market, you might be able to get some help through these programs.
There’s also the Federal First-Time Home Buyer Incentive program, which has been dreadfully unpopular. But in terms of last resorts, entering into a shared equity agreement with the federal government, isn’t the worst option out there.
And then finally, talk to a mortgage broker. You will not know how much you have to spend — you won’t know what your budget is until you talk to somebody who can crunch the numbers for you.
Mortgage brokers will also give you a big-picture view of your finances and how your debt plays with your creditworthiness in the eyes of lenders.
When my girlfriend and I were looking at properties about a year ago, our broker told us if you don’t pay off this one credit card, I can’t get you approved for anything. But if you wipe out that balance, I can get you $650,000.
So those kind of changes, those differences — you’re not going to know those on your own, probably.
Clay Jarvis: So talk to somebody who knows, and it will not cost you anything.
Sean Pyles: That’s super handy. Brean, what about in the U.K.?
Brean Horne: I’d also echo Clay’s point on speaking with a mortgage broker. They can offer expert advice and give you really tailored feedback on your specific circumstances.
So, particularly if you have fluctuating income due to being self-employed, or if you earn a commission-based income, they can point you in the direction of lenders and let you know what steps to take to get your finances in the best shape possible for when you’re ready to buy.
Sean Pyles: Are they also free to consult?
Brean Horne: Mortgage advisors in the U.K. — it varies. Some of them do charge a fee, but it depends on the terms and conditions. Some will only charge if you successfully get a mortgage; others might just have an upfront fee that you have to cover. Though it’s worth having a look at both to see what might work best for you.
But on that point, it’s always really important to look at the terms and conditions, because free might not necessarily give you the best advice, especially since purchasing a home is such a large thing to put your money into. It’s always worth making sure that you’re going to be taken care of and get the expert advice that you need.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, that makes sense.
Brean Horne: A couple of other resources available for buyers in the U.K. — NerdWallet UK has launched a new tool called Map My Commute, and essentially it helps buyers locate properties based on commute time.
So you can type in a post code or a location, and you can also type in how far you’re willing to travel based on whether you’re going back into the office, or if you just want to see the distance between certain locations.
And this could be particularly helpful for buyers that are willing to look into more rural areas. With hybrid working and working from home becoming slightly more common these days, having the opportunity to live further out is becoming more available to people. So this could potentially be a good way to see other properties that potentially could be more affordable for you.
And finally, there are several government schemes that buyers can look into, which can help enhance their savings power.
The Lifetime ISA, for example, is a type of government-backed savings account, which gives savers a bonus for their deposit savings each year.
There is also the Help to Buy scheme, which helps buyers get onto the property ladder as well. The deadline for applying for this scheme has actually been moved forward to October 2022. So if you are interested, get onto the Help to Buy website to see if there are any suitable homes in your local area for purchase.
Another thing that’s been really great to see is the Mortgage Guarantee scheme, which was launched in April of last year. And essentially what it does: It encourages lenders to put 95% mortgages back into their offerings. So a buyer would only have to save 5% of a property’s value as a house deposit to be considered for a mortgage.
These were much more common before the pandemic, but noticeably, we saw them fall off of the offerings of many lenders, due to the nature of the pandemic and the financial insecurity that that caused. So that is another great thing for buyers to look into.
And finally, if you are buying a property within a certain price range, you may be eligible for stamp duty relief as well. Stamp duty in the U.K. is a type of property tax. It’s a tiered level of tax that you pay whenever you purchase a property. But there is relief if you are a first-time buyer or you fall into one of the other exemptions.
So just having a look at whether or not you qualify could help bring down how much the total cost of the home will be and potentially make it a bit more affordable, too.
Sean Pyles: That’s really interesting. It’s so fascinating to hear the different programs that are available in each of your countries. One thing that stands out — hearing, Brean, you describe what’s available in the U.K. and, Clay, what’s available in Canada — is that we don’t really have mortgage brokers accessible in the same way, or at least that wasn’t my experience.
Kate, can you talk about why that might be and what options we do have available to make home buying a little bit easier?
Kate Wood: Sure. There certainly are mortgage brokers in the U.S. However, they are not as widely used as they used to be.
And for a lot of Americans who either lived through as homeowners or remember growing up and watching their parents go through the housing market and then subsequent crisis of the late 2000s and early 2010s — mortgage brokers were perceived as playing an outsized role in contributing to this crisis by steering people toward loans that were unaffordable.
Kate Wood: Since then, considerable regulations have been put in place about how mortgage brokers can be paid and how they can operate.
A mortgage broker can either be paid by you or they can be paid by the lender. They cannot be paid by both. And this is to try to avoid that steering. But again, because of that perception, the use of brokers is much less common.
One reason why U.S. home shoppers can feel more confident when they are researching different loans and comparing them, is because of the same legislation that put limits on what mortgage brokers can do.
So this was the Dodd-Frank Act. And one of the other aspects of the Dodd-Frank Act was making home loans in general much more transparent for consumers.
So now when you apply for a mortgage and you receive a loan estimate from a lender, any lender that you apply to, you are going to get an identical form from each lender.
So it’s very easy to compare the numbers that you see in the loan estimate and look at: “What are the fees? What are the rates? What are the different things that are built into this? And what am I being offered?” It has become much easier for Americans to be able to get mortgages without having to rely on a third party.
That said, there are certainly people who still will turn to mortgage brokers, just because it’s something that they don’t want to deal with, or they think it’s faster. Or maybe it’s something they’ve done before, and it feels familiar.
But mortgage brokers are starting to fall into a role similar to that of a travel agent — where it’s something that used to be very common; everyone did it; they provided this very necessary service. And instead, now it’s something where folks do their own research online.
Something that can be really helpful is finding a buyer’s real estate agent who’s not only excellent at their job, but who also you have a really strong rapport with, because it’s a relationship that you’re going to need to lean into.
They are going to need to know a lot about you really quickly, particularly details of your finances and your level of risk tolerance. They also can take you through the ins and outs of your local market.
They can help you come up with offers that are comfortable for you, but that are also potentially compelling to sellers.
And just when you feel like you are in your darkest hour, they are someone that you can turn to and who can help to prop you up and help you keep going — because this is a difficult process, and it is much longer than it has been in the past.
Sean Pyles: Well, looking ahead, I would love to hear from each of you: What one thing you think would help solve the current affordability crisis in your country? Brean, let’s start with you.
Brean Horne: There are so many different things, but if I had to pick one, I think the main focus has to be on investment in building more housing.
One of the core issues causing the affordability crisis at the moment is the lack of supply. There just really needs to be a push into making sure that we have the right types of housing being built, and also that it’s affordable and accessible for all types of buyers to get onto the property ladder or move up if they already have a home.
Sean Pyles: Clay, what about you?
Clay Jarvis: It’s very similar. The simplest solution would be to build a time machine, go back five years and build a million houses. That’s really the only solution.
In our last election cycle, every major political party made the exact same pledge. It was to build more than a million housing units. And when you see political parties agree on something, you know that it’s a big deal.
Now to make that happen, we also have to streamline the development of high density housing in residential neighborhoods. We need to make the approval process simpler. We need to make zoning laws more amenable.
And we need to cut down on the NIMBY-ism — that Not-In-My-Backyard-ism — that is preventing developers from building high density properties in residential neighborhoods.
I mean, I look across the street from my apartment, and all I see are single-family homes. It’s like I’m looking across at the 1950s — that idea that everybody has to have a single-family home, and everybody needs a yard and a driveway.
This is 2022, OK? We have a higher population. We have people moving in every day from different parts of the world to help support our economy. We need to give them places to go. And until that happens, we’re just going to see prices go up and up and up and up.
Sean Pyles: That’s another thing we’ve been seeing in the U.S. as well. I’ve been heartened to see the YIMBY movement — the Yes-In-My-Backyard movement — gaining momentum in recent years.
And Kate, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you could choose one thing that would help solve the affordability crisis right now, what’s that going to be?
Kate Wood: The U.S. market has been so wildly imbalanced for so long that it is honestly difficult to conceive of something that would be a single solution.
I will say in May of this year, the Biden administration released the Housing Supply Action Plan. This was a tremendously huge and multifaceted plan that really gets into, actually a lot of the areas that Clay mentioned, like zoning and thinking about multi-family housing and things like that.
It has tons of proposed actions. Many of them are part of the 2023 budget, which still needs to go before Congress and needs that Congressional approval.
I will say, however, that as much as possible, something this administration has done is given broad license to government agencies, programs, entities — really anything that can make moves that don’t require Congressional approval — that could potentially help to ease the housing crisis.
This is things like the Department of Housing and Urban Development now has a 30-day window, where anytime they are putting a home up for sale — so this would be a foreclosure that’s being put up for sale by HUD — there’s now a 30-day window where it can only be bid on by owner occupants. Investors are not allowed to bid. That is something that’s going on.
Sean Pyles: Well, I’ve seen a lot of stories recently about how companies, investors are snatching up the housing stock in this country.
Kate Wood: Yes, real estate investors buying up single-family homes and turning them into rentals is a major issue in the United States. It’s taking away from the stock of single-family homes and creating neighborhoods of transitory families, because people don’t tend to stay in rentals for as long and absentee landlords, which generally doesn’t lend itself to that strong sense of community or cohesion.
The other program that I was going to mention just super briefly was that they’ve taken existing Department of Transportation grants, and now they’re making inclusive zoning a consideration in those.
So when they’re considering who to award those grants to, they are looking at what kinds of zoning does that community have? So really, any little bit that they can, they are trying.
Sean Pyles: Well, at least something is being done, however slowly and gradually.
Well thanks, you guys, so much for talking with us today. It’s really been interesting to hear how we have so many similarities in the challenges facing affordability for home buyers in our various countries and the different solutions that our governments are trying to enact to make it better for folks.
Do you guys have any thoughts that you want to share with our listeners?
Kate Wood: If you are in the market to buy a home, if you have decided this is what is right for you and you are going for it, do not get down on yourself. It is not you.
This is beyond a really difficult market. This is the darkest-timeline housing market for home buyers right now.
And that is true in pretty much every last part of the United States. Very, very few markets are immune from these conditions.
Brean Horne: Although the property market is a bit of a minefield at the moment, I would just encourage buyers to focus on what they can change.
So making sure that your credit history is up to scratch, taking the time to find the right lenders who might be able to give you the appropriate mortgage for a property, and putting all of your efforts into saving or raising a deposit through investing will help put you in the best position so that you’re ready to take action when you want to make a purchase.
Clay Jarvis: Yeah. Before we go, I’d just like people to remember that buying a house doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve made it. It doesn’t mean that your financial problems are over. It doesn’t mean that your retirement is sorted.
Buying a house is a major financial and emotional commitment, and it might require you to make some sacrifices that you’re not comfortable with.
Now, it’s not an easy decision, and it’s something that you’re going to have to commit to, five, 10, 25 years. So make sure you’re comfortable with it. And if you’re not, don’t worry about it, OK?
Real estate is not the only way to secure a good future. It seems like it is now, but this is a blip in a long history.
Sean Pyles: Well, thank you all so much.
Clay Jarvis: Thank you, Sean.
Sean Pyles: And that is all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]
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