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A 30-Year Trap: The Problem With America’s Weird Mortgages

December 1, 2023

A 30-Year Trap: The Problem With America’s Weird Mortgages

Buying a home was hard before the pandemic. Somehow, it keeps getting harder.

Prices, already sky-high, have gotten even higher, up nearly 40 percent over the past three years. Available homes have gotten scarcer: Listings are down nearly 20 percent over the same period. And now interest rates have soared to a 20-year high, eroding buying power without — in defiance of normal economic logic — doing much to dent prices.

None of which, of course, is a problem for people who already own homes. They have been insulated from rising interest rates and, to a degree, from rising consumer prices. Their homes are worth more than ever. Their monthly housing costs are, for the most part, locked in place.

The reason for that divide — a big part of it, anyway — is a unique, ubiquitous feature of the U.S. housing market: the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

That mortgage has been so common for so long that it can be easy to forget how strange it is. Because the interest rate is fixed, homeowners get to freeze their monthly loan payments for as much as three decades, even if inflation picks up or interest rates rise. But because most U.S. mortgages can be paid off early with no penalty, homeowners can simply refinance if rates go down. Buyers get all of the benefits of a fixed rate, with none of the risks.

“It’s a one-sided bet,” said John Y. Campbell, a Harvard economist who has argued that the 30-year mortgage contributes to inequality. “If inflation goes way up, the lenders lose and the borrowers win. Whereas if inflation goes down, the borrower just refinances.”

This isn’t how things work elsewhere in the world. In Britain and Canada, among other places, interest rates are generally fixed for only a few years. That means the pain of higher rates is spread more evenly between buyers and existing owners.

In other countries, such as Germany, fixed-rate mortgages are common but borrowers can’t easily refinance. That means new buyers are dealing with higher borrowing costs, but so are longtime owners who bought when rates were higher. (Denmark has a system comparable to the United States’, but down payments are generally larger and lending standards stricter.)

Only the United States has such an extreme system of winners and losers, in which new buyers face borrowing costs of 7.5 percent or more while two-thirds of existing mortgage holders pay less than 4 percent. On a $400,000 home, that’s a difference of $1,000 in monthly housing costs.

“It’s a bifurcated market,” said Selma Hepp, chief economist at the real estate site CoreLogic. “It’s a market of haves and have-nots.”

It isn’t just that new buyers face higher interest rates than existing owners. It’s that the U.S. mortgage system is discouraging existing owners from putting their homes on the market — because if they move to another house, they’ll have to give up their low interest rates and get a much costlier mortgage. Many are choosing to stay put, deciding they can live without the extra bedroom or put up with the long commute a little while longer.

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