Buying a house in 2021 is hard. Is building more homes the answer? We spoke with leading real estate industry economists and observers about why it is so difficult to buy a house this year, and whether rising mortgage interest rates or building more homes will solve the new housing shortage.

This week, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) released a study calling for a dire, “once-in-a-generation” response to the housing shortage currently playing out in neighborhoods across the country.

The study, Housing Is Critical Infrastructure: Social and Economic Benefits of Building More Housing, written by Rosen Consulting Group, was remarkable, as it brought together some of the housing industry’s most recognized observers, who lent their particular expertise to bear on a seemingly intractable problem: There are now anywhere from 5 to 6.8 million housing units (including single-family homes, townhomes, condos, and rental units) missing from housing inventory.

In short: housing prices and rents are rising astronomically because the demand is so great and the supply is so thin. (These costs are contributing significantly to rising inflation.)

Should you buy a house in 2021?

This is quite a turnaround in just a few short years. As the housing crisis got underway in 2009, there were arguably too many homes for too few buyers. Millions of homeowners lost their jobs, then lost their homes, some of which went through foreclosure and some of which were sold in a short sale. Ilyce wrote stories for CBSNews’ Moneywatch site in 2011 about homes selling for $7 in Detroit, condos in Atlanta selling for $50,000, and all sorts of properties selling for not much more than that in Arizona, Las Vegas, and other cities that were hard-hit by foreclosures.

As the economy recovered, and prices started to rise in places like Boise, Denver, and Boston, there were a glut of homes that sat for years up until 2013, 2014 and even 2015, until hedge funds and other large scale investors began scooping them up, and turning them into rentals. Sometimes, the former homeowner rented their home back from the new owners.

There is an extreme shortage of affordable homes, first-time buyer houses, trade-up properties and rental units

And now, as if by magic, the U.S. is experiencing an extreme shortage of housing of all kinds: first-time buyer houses, affordable housing, trade-up properties, rental properties, two- and three-family properties, and multi-family buildings.

But is the shortage of housing caused by historic low interest rates or a lack of building, or both?

Buying a home in 2021 is much more expensive than in 2020

Housing is Critical Infrastructure argues that there has been a decades-long gap in investment. That the “U.S. faces an acute shortage of available housing, an ever-worsening affordability crisis, and an existing housing stock that is aging and increasingly in need of repair—all to the detriment of the health of the public and the economy. The scale of underbuilding and the existing demand-supply gap is enormous and will require a major national commitment to build more housing of all types by expanding resources, addressing barriers to new development and making new housing construction an integral part of a national infrastructure strategy.”

The Realtors, whose membership is said to be at or near an all-time high and who clearly benefit from having more housing product to sell and lease, are proposing an unprecedented push on the supply side: more and better funding capabilities, changes in zoning to accommodate more units in smaller spaces, converting underutilized commercial space to residential homes, and using the might of the federal government “to help address construction capacity challenges such as rising construction costs and labor and materials shortages.”

Americans want to buy homes now to take advantage of historic low mortgage rates

“There is a strong desire for homeownership across this country, but the lack of supply is preventing too many Americans from achieving that dream,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, in the press release announcing the report’s release. “It’s clear from the findings of this report and from the conditions we’ve observed in the market over the past few years that we’ll need to do something dramatic to close this gap.”

NAR and the National Association of Home Builders, among others, predicted back in 2011 and 2012 that supply would be a problem by 2017. Mortgage interest rates, which hit 15 new historic lows last year, aren’t helping. Home buyers (and homeowners) have been rushing to take advantage of what many imagine will be the last chance to lock in a 30-year mortgage at under 3 percent. With the Federal Reserve Bank’s admission this week that inflation is rising faster than expected, mortgage interest rates are likely to follow, industry experts say. And, that will naturally slow down housing demand from the current frenzied pace.

If mortgage interest rates top 4%, it’ll be easier to buy a home. Maybe a lot easier.

“In 2018, mortgage interest rates jumped from rates below 4 percent to above 5 percent, while home prices were increasing at an annual pace of 5 to 6 percent. The challenge was the speed with which they went up,” recalls Mike Fratantoni, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association. “It was too fast for people to adjust to the increase in payments needed, and by the time we got to the fall, we saw transaction volume drop quickly.”

This time, he says, the configuration is different. “Because of the dire shortage of supply, prices are going up by double digits. If we were to get a rapid increase in mortgage rates like in 2018 at the same time prices are going up, we could see transaction volume fall off very quickly again.”

Are we in a housing bubble?

For the first time in a dozen years, we’re hearing people talk about a housing bubble. But when you’re more than 5 million homes short, and builders are only building 1.5 million homes per year, it will take a long time for supply to catch up with demand. Too long. Which is why the Realtors are calling for a one-in-a-generation (maybe lifetime?) push to build more housing.

The problem is what happens after the music stops: When home sellers wake up one morning to find that home prices and interest rates are so high, there suddenly aren’t enough buyers who can qualify for that mortgage.


READ MORE: Want to buy a home? Good luck. We’re 4 Million short.