At a rooftop party in Philadelphia on a hot July night, the margarita machine was going strong, the seafood boil was hearty, and the talk turned to real estate, which is the default topic for people who want to move up.
Almost everyone looking for a home in the 2020s already knows the script: Someone talks about how they just bought a house, which is a story that is sure to be full of drama, stress, and suspense. Guests who know that the housing market can change quickly lean in for the next part: When did you purchase?
Evan Barker, 36, a lawyer who was at the party and has heard enough of these conversations to know what an “Oooh” means, said that the answer to that key question is usually followed by an “Oooh.” This could mean that you got your life’s best interest rate or did not.
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Barker is lucky that he belongs to the first group. In the early spring of 2020, he and his 36-year-old wife, Laura Gallagher, bought their first home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. This was just a few weeks before home prices started rising rapidly in U.S. history, as mortgage rates fell to all-time lows. The 30-year mortgage rate hit its lowest point in January 2021, at 2.65%. This was a few months before Barker, and Gallagher refinanced and got a better rate than the national average, at 2.375%.
So it’s not surprising that Barker spent the night enjoying the talk almost as much as the beautiful views from the City Center rooftop. He knew what to say in this scene. He had worked on his delivery for months, usually waiting for someone else to say an impressive interest rate before he beat it.
He said, “I’ll throw in the humblebrag.” “Hey! Luck was the best thing I ever did with my money. It’s that easy.”
Most of the guests spent the conversation trying to outdo each other, but the one who had recently bought at a much higher interest rate than everyone else stood out to Barker. “Some of their payment information surprised us,” he said.
Homeowners in the U.S. are now on two different sides of a divide. On one side are people lucky enough to buy or refinance a home between 2020 and early 2022. Their monthly interest payments on their principal are now very low. Everyone else is on the other side.
As rates go up and home prices stay the same, these people who want to buy a home or just bought one are seeing their buying power go down. The 30-year mortgage rate was just under 7% in the middle of July. In October, it had reached a high of 7.08%. Rates haven’t been above 7% since 2002, more than 20 years ago.
The difference makes it easy for the winners to make fun of the losers and for the losers to feel bad about themselves. Homeowners and buyers say that the fighting is happening between friends at parties, between coworkers at the office, and on social media, where it shows up as memes that are either smug, shocked, or hopeless, depending on where you are on the spectrum.
Ovül Sezer, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Cornell University who studies humblebrags, said, “There is almost a cross-generational envy.”
It’s nothing new to show off your money and luck. But most Americans try not to talk about money in detail. Sure, you’ll tell everyone on Facebook and the platform that used to be called Twitter about your promotion, but you’ll probably keep quiet about the pay raise that comes with it. The same attitude holds when it comes to real estate. A happy homeowner might brag about beating the other bidders in a bidding war, but they won’t talk about how much they paid or how much each month.
Here comes the interest rate, which is the best stand-in. If you share your mortgage rate, you can show how good you are with money without saying how much you spent (or how much you have). It almost sounds modest. Almost.
“When we brag, we show how smart we are,” Sezer said. In this case, we’re telling the world we’re savvy shoppers. “Yet we also know that bragging isn’t the best thing to do, so humblebragging seems to be a good middle ground. It lets us brag and look humble at the same time.”
Not many people fall for it.
“It’s something to talk about. “We get it, we know, yes, yes—everyone has 2.6%. You’re all so smart, thanks for letting me know,” said Ike Wachuku, 34, a software engineer in Baltimore. If he and his wife ever find a new house, they will not get a 2.6% interest rate. “People are giving you a hard time about it.”
Aside from keeping a good credit score, consumers don’t have much say over what mortgage rate they get. As a result of the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep inflation under control, mortgage rates have been going up. So the rate is based on timing, not skill, and timing results from luck.
Luck isn’t completely random, as it turns out. The pandemic made differences that were already there worse. Many more affluent Americans could make more money because of the pandemic. They kept their jobs, could work from home, got bonuses and raises, and had cash on hand when interest rates dropped to keep the economy going. They were in the best place to buy homes, increasing prices. People who lost their jobs, got sick or had other financial problems in 2020 and 2021 probably didn’t enjoy the moment. Now, they have to deal with the complicated effects of rampant inflation.
The interest rate cut was a “free handout to people who didn’t need it,” said the chief economist at Redfin, Daryl Fairweather. “That door closed as soon as people got back on their feet,” for everyone else.
Or, as Sharon Reshef, who bought a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., for $400,000 last month, said, “It’s hard to plan your life around macroeconomics.”
Even so, some of her slightly older coworkers in the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tease her about her 6.625% interest rate.
Reshef, who is 30 years old and works as the research director for a senator from New York and now spends half of her pay on her mortgage, said, “It’s just a friendly jab.” “But since we’re already here, I’ll say that few people in my group own property, especially if they’re single. No matter how much interest they charge, I have that one over them. I have a lot to brag about.”
Scott Decker, who is 35, wishes he had been ready to move out of Brooklyn to the suburbs in 2021, when many of his friends did. Instead, he and his wife, Maureen Decker, bought a house the next year in Montclair, New Jersey. When he drives his son to preschool, he plays a tortured game as he passes the beautiful homes on tree-lined streets.
“I’m wondering how much this house sold for.” And, “If we had wanted this house two years ago, we could have gotten it,” he said. “I always think about that and am always a little envious.”
Decker, who is in charge of strategic media planning for a tech company, and Decker bought a four-bedroom house for $1.1 million, which was 40% more than the list price. They also got an adjustable-rate mortgage with a fixed rate of 4.15 percent until 2030. After that, the rate will change based on the market rates. He said, “I’m scared of what I might have to do in the future.”
The Deckers know another couple in Montclair who lives in a bigger house, but their monthly payments are about the same because their interest rate is lower. Decker said, “Every time we go to their house, I think, ‘Man, this isn’t fair.'”
If you talk to someone who bought a house in 2020 or 2021, they will probably say that the competition was tough and the process was awful. But buyers today face conditions that are the same or even worse. The number of homes for sale is partly low because people don’t want to give up their low-interest rates. A report from Redfin in July says that only about 1% of American homes have changed hands this year. This is the lowest rate in a decade.
Things could always be worse. In 1981, mortgage rates hit a record high of 18.53%, which was crazy. Still, the average home price in the second quarter of 1981 was $84,300. Even with inflation, that’s about $287,020, a lot less than the average price of $495,100 in the second quarter of 2023.
But people who remember when interest rates were in the double digits quickly remind younger people that they, too, had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to get to school.
Allen J. Palmer, 85, who is retired from IBM and bought his house in what is now Silicon Valley, California, in 1977 for $95,000 (or $480,686 in today’s dollars) with an 8.5% mortgage interest rate, said, “Fate and the gods decide when you enter that phase of your life and what is going on in the market.” The first year he and his wife lived in that house, they couldn’t afford to fly home to Milwaukee for the holidays.
He said that young buyers don’t understand that this is how things are. “They probably don’t remember that their parents had trouble paying the mortgage, too,” the banker said.
In a recent TikTok video, Barbara Corcoran, a 74-year-old real estate mogul, arranged fresh flowers while scolding buyers who were hesitant to get back into the market. This is a common refrain among real estate agents, who say there is no better time than now to buy a house.
“Pick your poison: high-interest rates now, which aren’t that high, or super-high prices once they go down,” Corcoran said, brushing her hand over a fern frond. “It’s up to you.”
Decker, who lives in Montclair, knows what he thinks buyers should do. He was standing at the bar of a local barbecue restaurant when he overheard a customer who seemed too sure of himself talking about a lowball offer he had made on a house in town. Decker had lost enough bidding wars to know how this story would end, and he thought about telling him how bad things were for him. He thought he might lean across the bar and say, “Don’t bother, man. Go chill out somewhere else.” But he wasn’t sure.
He said, “It did make me feel a little better, and I’m glad I have a place to live and don’t have to worry about that right now.”
Instead of giving unsolicited advice, he ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jameson and walked back to the patio to sit with his family and enjoy the evening in their new town.