When Elizabeth Matheny and her husband John talked with a real estate broker this winter, the discussion featured “a stiff dose of reality” for the Sebastopol couple.
The Mathenys, who were high school sweethearts, learned in detail what it would take to buy their first home. Elizabeth Matheny, 29, who works in benefits administration, and her husband, 30, a project manager for a solar installation company, concluded they were still years away from being ready to make an offer.
“It’s a much bigger, more daunting goal than we thought it was going to be,” she said.
The Mathenys’ story is a familiar one among younger couples in Sonoma County. Many want to purchase homes here. But first they must save more money — and often receive help from parents — in order to amass a suitable down payment in a county where the median single-family home price was $544,000 in February.
Such stories are likely to become even more common in the coming years. Despite the stereotype of millennials as urban, apartment-loving hipsters, researchers say the vast majority of them want one day to own homes. And they still find the suburbs an attractive place to raise families.
Among those seeking a place in the county is Jessica Ramirez, who one morning last week looked at three houses on the market. The 26-year old Santa Rosa native works with her father, Fito Ramirez, at his auto sales business in Santa Rosa.
Ramirez said her parents are helping her with the purchase of a home for her and her fiancée, Danielle Uekert.
“I’m happy, nervous and scared all at the same time,” she said of the homebuying experience.
Those who study housing say increased student debt and the effects of the recession have delayed homeownership for large numbers of millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000. But the experts say owning a home matters to this generation, and they predict that many of the young people eventually will find a way to purchase a place of their own.
“They still very much aspire to become homeowners,” said Jeremy Burbank, a vice president with the Demand Institute, a nonprofit research group jointly operated by Nielsen, the global information and measurement company, and The Conference Board, a business membership and research organization.
Even so, experts offer mixed views as to how many millennials will be able to buy homes in places like Sonoma County, an area where only a quarter of the population can afford a median-priced home.
Los Angeles economist Christopher Thornberg flatly rejected the idea that California is going to build the number of houses needed to satisfy both millennials and aging baby boomers. The result, he predicted, is young families will continue to move out of state.
“If you don’t build enough housing, the people with the most money win,” said Thornberg, a founding partner of Beacon Economics and a regular speaker at Sonoma County’s economic development breakfast each fall. The boomers, he said, are numerous “and they’re rich and they want to live here.”
Bank of America regional sales executive Ann Thompson said she takes a more optimistic view.
“These millennials have parents,” said Thompson, who works in both San Francisco and Oakland. Those older adults value homeownership and they will do what they can to help their children buy houses and stay in California.