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Changes in down payments have much greater impact on homebuyers’ willingness to buy a home than changes in mortgage rates and lower down payment increase renters, according to a new study published recently by economists at the New York Federal Reserve.

The survey of buyers and renters found dramatic evidence that the impact of interest rates is highly overrated compared to the impact of even small changes in down payment requirements. The study found that decreasing the required down payment from 20 percent to 5 percent increases the willingness to purchase on the average about 15 percent among all buyers and 40 percent among renters.  Decreasing interest rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, though it would save the buyer much more than the lower down payment, raised the willingness to purchase a home by only 5 percent on average.

The study also found that it is primarily the less wealthy respondents (particularly renters) that strongly increase their WTP in response to a lower required down payment, consistent with many of them being severely liquidity-constrained.

As part of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Survey of Consumer Expectations, the economics asked (online) respondents to assume they are to move today to a town/city similar to their current one, and asked how much they would be willing and able to pay for a home similar to the one they currently live in, under four different scenarios.

In the first scenario, all respondents are told they would have to make a 20 percent down payment, but half the respondents face a mortgage rate of 4.5 percent while the others face a rate of 6.5 percent. This first scenario thus made it possible to estimate the importance of mortgage rates by comparing across respondents. In a second scenario, each respondent’s mortgage rate stayed unchanged, but they were allowed to freely choose their down payment, with the restriction that it needs to be at least 5 percent of the price they are willing to pay. In the third scenario, we respondents’ mortgage rates were switched from 6.5 percent to 4.5 percent, or vice-versa. And in the final scenario, our respondents are asked to assume that they just inherited $100,000 in cash, allowing us the economists to study the effect of a (large) non-housing wealth shock on willingness to pay.

“A key takeaway is that the effect of a change in down payment requirements on housing demand strongly depends on households’ financial situation,” says economists Andreas Fuster and Basit Zafar of the New York Federal Reserve. “For instance, a loosening of down payment requirements will have little effect on the willingness to purchase for a new home of current owners with substantial equity, or of renters with substantial liquid savings.  The results also imply that macroprudential measures such as a loan-to-value (LTV) cap may predominantly affect the lower end of the housing market, and that the effect on house prices will depend on the state of the economy and other asset markets.”

While the sensitivity of willing to the mortgage rate is quite small, changes in down payment requirements have large effects on willingness to purchase in the survey. This suggests that changing availability of credit, as well as measures such as LTV caps, can have a large influence on house prices. These effects are substantially stronger for relatively less wealthy respondents, meaning that the effect of credit availability varies substantially in the cross-section of households.  Similarly, to the extent that households overall are richer when economic conditions are good, a loosening of credit may have less of an effect on housing demand during those times than during bad times, the study concluded.

For more information, visit www.realestateeconomywatch.com.

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