Sonoma County millennials’ tales of home-buying woes confirmed in studies

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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.

In the Bay Area and the North Coast, most millennials think they won’t have to obtain that first home completely by themselves, according to a survey released last week by Bank of America.

Seventy-six percent of those surveyed, who live throughout the Bay Area and in Lake and Mendocino counties, said they expect to receive some financial help from parents, ranging from aid with the down payment to assistance with moving or home furnishings. That statistic compares with 66 percent of U.S. millennials who expect some type of parental aid.

Millennials now outnumber baby boomers and represent more than a quarter of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. Last summer the younger generation numbered 83.1 million.

In 2014, the Demand Institute published a housing survey based on interviews with more than 1,000 young people ages 18 to 29. Burbank said the researchers were curious to know how the younger people were different from older Americans, “but we found that there were a surprising number of ways that they are similar to previous generations.”

For example, 64 percent of those surveyed planned to be married and 55 percent planned to have children within five years.

Also, three-quarters of the young people planned to buy a home some day. And while they prefer communities where they can walk or take a short drive in order to shop or eat, the largest portion of them remain interested in suburban living.

Like many young couples, Ellen McDowell, 26, and her husband, Brent, 27, want some day to purchase a home in the county. They both grew up here and found jobs in the county, Ellen McDowell as a city planner and her husband in the wine industry.

They now rent a home in Healdsburg, but they concluded they likely must look elsewhere for a place they can afford to buy.

Ellen McDowell considered it striking to compare her situation to that of her parents, who were in their early 20s when they bought their first home.

“Here I’m almost 27 and I’m not even close,” she said.

In a study released in December, researchers led by economics professor Yilan Xu of the University of Illinois concluded that high levels of student loan debt are impeding millennials from becoming homeowners. Big student loan amounts can disqualify potential home buyers for mortgages or make them reluctant to take on more debt.

Burbank of the Demand Institute acknowledged that outstanding student loan debt has tripled in the U.S. in the last decade. Even so, he maintained the issue remains nuanced.

His research found that by age 30, college grads with student debt owned homes in significantly higher proportions than similarly aged adults who didn’t graduate from college. The reason is that overall, the college grads had higher salaries.

Even when it requires taking on debt, said Burbank, “getting a college degree pays off in the long run.”

While young, some Sonoma County millennials already have stories of home ownership to one day share with their own children.

Chelsea Roberts’ story involves paying close to $3,700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco and watching friends there trying to raise children in similarly sized rentals.

Roberts, a schoolteacher, and fiancé Sam Ehrlich, an executive chef, recently found a rental in Santa Rosa with the help of her mother, Bertolone Realty agent Vicki Roberts. The daughter suggested the couple’s prospects may be better for one day raising a family and owning a home in Sonoma County.

“The outlook isn’t bright for us in the city,” Roberts said. “That’s all we know.”

Some millennials recalled personal experiences with the housing market crash. While home prices this year have risen to within 12 percent of their record levels, more than 15,000 county property owners lost homes to foreclosures and short sales in the years since 2007 when prices tumbled.

Santa Rosa native Cassandra Cape, 32, lost a condominium to foreclosure in 2009. Even so, she is again looking at buying property, most likely as an investment rental.

Cape, who works at her family’s business, Santa Rosa Stainless Steel, said she still sees potential in real estate but for now she is getting a better value by renting a home in Santa Rosa.

“Do you really want to pay a $3,000-a-month house payment?” she asked. “I certainly don’t.”

Others have found creative ways to keep their housing costs low. When transferring to Sonoma State University, Thomas Olding and girlfriend Katie Schumpelt considered sharing a rental with other students. But the couple ended up buying and living in a 28-foot-long trailer.

Olding, 24, and Schumpelt, 23, will both graduate this spring and plan to seek jobs in the Bay Area. The couple both worked in the grocery business during college, and Olding alone had to take out student loans to pay for two semesters of classes.

Living in the trailer allowed them to save money for a future down payment on a home either in California or elsewhere, Olding said. It also taught them to live within their means.

“We don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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