Buying a House in 2024: What to Expect

The market remains tough for buyers, but there’s still no time like the present to start shopping.

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Written by Abby Badach Doyle
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From high prices to low inventory, potential home buyers know it’s gnarly out there. But if you’re ready for homeownership, the long-term benefit of buying often outweighs the pain of toughing out the search — even these days.

Think of it like your 5 a.m. spin class: You know it’s good for you, even if it takes grit (and leaves you feeling sore).

With some market savvy, you can make the most of today’s challenging conditions. Here’s your game plan for buying a house in 2024.

The challenge: Stubbornly high mortgage rates squeeze shoppers’ buying power

Buyers have been at the mercy of mortgage rates’ meteoric rise, holding on as the average 30-year fixed rate climbed from 3% to nearly 7% in 2022. In October 2023, rates topped 8% for the first time since 2000 — a surprise even many top economists didn’t predict. But throughout November, they dropped slightly, landing at an average of 7.03% for the week ending Dec. 7.

Higher interest rates make it more expensive to get a mortgage. To put that in perspective: Let’s say you can afford $1,800 per month in principal and interest. At a 3% interest rate, you could afford to borrow $426,900. But at a 7% interest rate, you could afford to borrow only $270,600. Why? Because you’d pay a full $156,300 more in mortgage interest with the higher rate.

For now, economic signals suggest more positive news for buyers in 2024. Dan Moralez, regional vice president at Dart Bank in Holland, Michigan, points to a cooling economy and the pause on Fed interest rate hikes. “All of that stuff really lends itself to mortgage rates getting better and the cost to borrow getting cheaper,” Moralez says.

Let’s set realistic expectations, though: No experts are forecasting a return to 3% rates anytime soon. More likely, we’ll see the 30-year mortgage rate decline modestly below 7% in the second half of 2024, according to forecasts from the Mortgage Bankers Association and the National Association of Realtors.

Your strategy: Do your research to find the best deal

Don’t let high rates keep you on the sidelines for too long. When rates go down, competition goes up — another reason there’s no time like the present to start house hunting.

And whichever way rates move in 2024, you’ll save money if you shop around. Aim to get an estimate from at least three mortgage lenders. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates borrowers can save $100 per month (or more) this way. And look at the annual percentage rate, or APR, to understand the total cost of the loan, which includes fees and other charges.

With buyers wincing at high rates, some lenders are advertising “buy now, refinance later” offers. Others are offering temporary buydowns, where the buyer’s effective monthly payment is reduced for a year (or a few). Before signing up for a discount, ask questions to understand how it works. Each option could potentially save money, but Moralez says it could also be “smoke and mirrors” if the flashy deal is offset by higher fees.

“It’s one of those things where I tell folks, ‘There’s no free lunch, OK?’” he says. “You know, somebody is paying for it somewhere.”

The challenge: Low inventory means slim pickings for buyers

The rate of existing home sales is the lowest it’s been in 13 years, according to October 2023 data from the National Association of Realtors (NAR). The current market has a 3.6-month supply of unsold home inventory, meaning it would take listed homes 3.6 months to sell at the current sales pace. A balanced market has a supply of five to six months.

So why aren’t sellers selling? Octavius Smiley-Humphries, a real estate agent with The Smiley Group in Apex, North Carolina, points to higher prices and the “rate lock-in effect."

“At this point, you'd be paying either double your mortgage for the same price house that you have, or a similar mortgage if you're trying to even downsize,” he says. “So I think the more intelligent buyer is kind of thinking, ‘What’s the benefit?’ unless you absolutely have to move.”

Some hope: Single-family construction permits are on the rise, with more issued in October 2023 than at any other time in the past year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, so we’ll see more new houses boosting supply soon. And despite larger shortages, 92% of markets have seen modest inventory growth over the last three months, according to a November 2023 report from ICE Mortgage Technology.

Your strategy: Cast a wider net

You can’t control who puts their house on the market. So focus on what you can change: your expectations.

Let go of the fantasy of finding the perfect home when a “good enough” home can get your foot in the door sooner. That’s especially true for first-time home buyers who are eager to build equity.

“Real estate has always been a really solid investment,” Smiley-Humphries says. “So what you essentially lose by waiting six months or a year could mean tens of thousands of dollars.”

For now, maybe you expand your search to include condos or townhouses. Maybe you settle for fewer bathrooms or a dated interior. Keep your chin up — even if you have to tolerate less square footage or weird linoleum floors for a while, you’ll have equity to remodel or sell in a few years.

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The challenge: High prices push affordability to the worst it’s been in almost 40 years

Housing is the least affordable it’s been since 1984, according to a November 2023 report from ICE Mortgage Technology. Why? Home prices are growing faster than income, and on top of that, higher mortgage rates increase the cost of borrowing.

In October 2023, the median existing home sales price climbed to a record high of $391,800, according to the NAR. To buy a median-priced home at that time, buyers would need to shell out $2,567 per month just in principal in interest, ICE estimates. That’s another all-time high since ICE has been keeping track — and nearly double the median monthly payment of $1,327 just two years ago.

Until supply catches up to demand, prices are unlikely to fall. estimates prices will fall less than 2% next year. That’s another reason to jump in now: A big drop in prices could trigger more competition.

Your strategy: Make a budget and stick to it

If you’re Zillow-stalking houses you can’t afford, stop. Instead, channel that energy toward your plan to shop for a house in real life — starting with setting a realistic budget.

First, talk to a financial advisor or use an online calculator to see how much house you can afford. Understand how mortgage lenders will determine your eligibility, including analyzing your credit score, cash savings and monthly debt payments.

Next, find a buyer’s agent who knows how far your budget can go in your local market. An experienced agent can advocate for you and help you snag a good deal.

One bargain-hunting tip: Start searching in the winter, suggests Ellie Kowalchik, a real estate agent who leads the Move2Team with Keller Williams Pinnacle Group in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“There are good houses on the market now that aren't getting the attention they may get in the spring with more buyer activity,” she says. “Less competition is good for buyers.”

The challenge: Multiple offers are common, and first-time buyers have less cash

More than one in four homes are still selling for above list price, according to October 2023 data from the NAR: 28% of homes sold for above list price that month. Homes for sale spent a median of 23 days on the market and saw an average of 2.5 offers, a sign that competition remains tough.

"Limited housing inventory is significantly preventing housing demand from fully being satisfied,” Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said in a press release. “Multiple offers, of course, yield only one winner, with the rest left to continue their search."

In general, first-time buyers come to the negotiating table with less cash than repeat buyers, reports the NAR. First-time buyers make a median down payment of 8%, while repeat buyers put down a median 19%.

And nearly one in three (29%) of sales were made in cash, reports the NAR, up slightly from 26% in 2022.

Your strategy: Use leverage where you have it

A good real estate agent can help you craft a strong offer, even if other buyers flash more cash.

Aziz Alhees, a real estate agent with Compass in Pasadena, California, has seen his share of wealthy investors making cash offers. He notes that they tend to bid below asking price since cash sales close faster. The promise of a quick closing is enough to get some sellers to turn down higher offers that ask for more time.

So Alhees competes on speed: With a mortgage preapproval and all other paperwork in hand, he prepares his buyers to close in 14 days.

“We’re not afraid of cash offers anymore,” he says.

On the flip side, if the sellers need more time to move out, a flexible closing timeline can sweeten some deals, too. But don’t waive the home inspection when you’re negotiating. It can be tempting, but you’re only hurting yourself if you later discover expensive problems.

The bottom line: Set realistic expectations

It’s fair to feel bummed out about high costs and low inventory. That’s especially true for first-time buyers who have been putting off their search, only to see the market remaining rough.

The solution: Think long term. Holding out for lower rates likely means you’ll face steeper prices and more competition. So if you’re determined to buy, find a place that suits your needs and budget as-is. Expecting perfection often means setting yourself up for disappointment.

“Sometimes I have clients that think they're going to hit a home run the very first house they buy,” Moralez says. “And a lot of times I tell clients, well, sometimes it's OK to be happy just getting on base.”

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