"How We Did It": 3 Millennial Homeowners Tell Their Stories



By Taylor Tepper

Millennials want to own a home. Many just don’t have the cash.

Despite grand theories about the revolutionary shift in millennial spending, young adults today don’t want to eschew housing any more than they want to give up cars, McDonald’s, or most other staples of American life. In fact 91% of renters between the ages of 25 and 34 eventually want to own a home, according to a Fannie Mae survey.

homeownerAnd yet, young adults today are much less likely to own a home than previous generations did at their age. The new group of 20somethings graduated into the teeth of the recession, while shouldering record levels of student loan debt, delaying their demand for permanent homes. (The economic factors also help explain why millennials are getting married later.) Right now 35% of households helmed by someone under 35 own a home, according to the Pew Research Center—down from 43% a dozen years ago.

But of course, those numbers mean that roughly a third of millennials are sinking their savings into a roof, floor, and four or so walls. MONEY asked a few such recent homebuyers from across the country—all 2016 purchasers, but at different incomes, ages, and life stages—to tell us how they were able to afford a home; what they had to give up to save for a down payment; and what it’s like to put their faith in a large, illiquid asset nearly a decade after an unprecedented housing meltdown.

The following conversations have been edited and condensed.

Brittany Rutherford, 25 - bought a single-family home in Nashville

  • Job: Experience manager at a tech startup
  • Income: $50,000
  • Home price: $220,000
  • Down payment: $8,000
  • Mortgage: FHA 30-year fixed-rate at 3.1%
  • Family status: In a relationship

How did you end up in Nashville?

I moved there six months ago from Denver with my boyfriend. I hadn’t been to Nashville before—I drove in with everything I owned in tow. I wanted more mild weather. But I was shocked by the cost of rent. The market just didn’t seem ready for the city’s big population boom.

Did you buy right away?

At first, I rented this little house, sight unseen, but when I got there I said, “Oh no, this isn’t going to work.” After a couple of months, I kept seeing these cute houses for sale, and I looked into what it takes to buy, to see if I could do this. After realizing I could more or less pay a mortgage for what I was paying in rent, I took the leap. It all went so fast. In the end, I pay $100 more a month to own a house double the size of my rental, in a safer neighborhood, on nearly an acre of land.

How did you save for it?

Because I used an FHA loan for first-time home buyers, my down payment was a lot lower. And it helps that my boyfriend pays rent. But buying this house actually came at one of the most broke times in my life—a good chunk of my savings went into moving and reestablishing in Nashville. So I buy smart. I budget. I keep my day-to-day living expenses fairly low, and save the rest. I’m a huge thrifter, so I’m not distracted by shiny new things. I have a 2006 Jeep that’s paid off. I went to a state college where I could get in-state tuition and a state scholarship. My story isn’t one of privilege or wealth—I literally worked hard and saved.

Did you have to give up anything?

My only sacrifice would be that in consumer terms, I did not buy all the stuff that my peers did. I don’t go out every weekend, I make coffee at home, hang out at friends’ houses, and watch movies on Netflix.

What did you feel when you moved into your own place?

Pride. There’s a confidence that comes from making things happen on your own. I’m having so much fun DIY-ing my space. I’m starting a garden this spring. I’m cooking more. What no one tells you is that unless your house is brand new, you will want to change things—and once you do, you’ll want to keep going. I just ripped up my cabinets, and I’m about to go home and sand the walls that I just puttied.

Gabriella Cuzzola, 27 - bought a condo in Jersey City Heights, N.J., with her husband

  • Job: Works on special events at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and as a real-estate agent
  • Income: Around $175,000 combined
  • Home price: $380,000
  • Down payment: 10%
  • Mortgage: 30-year fixed at 3.75%. (“I thought we had locked in a 3.65% but we forgot a signature. It was so upsetting, so frustrating. Freaking paperwork.”)
  • Family status: Engaged

Why did you buy?

I loved living in the Hoboken, N.J., area, but rent was so high and I felt like I was throwing money away. It didn’t feel smart. My fiancé and I saw Jersey City Heights as an up-and-coming area where we could get more space and still be close to our old neighborhood. We were seeing cool bars and restaurants slowly pop up and it felt like a good investment.

How did you save for it?

We actually got engaged right around the time we were starting to seriously discuss buying a place. My parents were generously going to be paying for a large part of our wedding, so they encouraged us to take that money and use it toward the down payment—we originally weren’t going to be able to put down 10%.

Unlike a lot of other people in our generation, we didn’t have a lot of student loans, and we just finished paying them back. But that pushed back when we could save up enough. We also cut back on traveling and spending in general as best we could.

I took on a second, part-time job as a real estate agent the summer before we bought our condo, working a lot of nights and weekends. All the money I made went right toward the down payment and closing costs. Another benefit of being an agent: We bought the condo from someone we knew, who wanted to cut out the realtor and sell the place by owner so he wouldn’t have to pay commission. If we’d had to use an outside agent, he would have priced the place a bit higher.

We also have two friends who are living with us right now during our first year and contributing toward the monthly costs. Because we have roommates, we are able to save that money throughout this year and use it toward wedding costs.

Is that a big sacrifice?

We are really lucky that the people we live with are our good friends, so it ends up being a lot of fun. Working a second job and living with roommates can be stressful, for sure. But I would never change the decision we made, because we’re in such a better financial position.

How does it feel to live in a house you own?

We are really lucky that my dad has built and renovated houses, so we call him a lot. We’ve already done some big projects, and learned some lessons. I think that was part of my reason for wanting to own something—there are a ton of life skills you need to learn to be able to maintain your home, and I wanted us to get started on that.

Tanner Callais, 32 - bought a single-family home in Austin

  • Job: Runs a cruise travel website. Wife works as interior decorator.
  • Income: $100,000 combined
  • Home price: $315,000
  • Down payment: $96,000
  • Mortgage: 30-year fixed at 3.5%
  • Family status: Married, with an 8-month-old

Why did you buy?

My wife and I always knew we wanted to buy a house, but when we found out we were expecting a kid, it was time to get off the fence and get a place of our own.

How did you save for it?

We have always been savers, and both worked. For a couple of years we had a great income, before I got tired of my job and quit to go back to school—but even at our peak we never spent more than $3,000 to $4,000 per month on living expenses. I drove the same Saturn for close to a decade. But the buying process was a stressful time. We were constantly outbid on several houses. Our sixth offer was the first one that was accepted, and that was only after we bid way above asking.

Wait, you quit your job right before you bought?

Yeah—I quit my job because I was coming home unhappy every day. The good thing was that we could could make the budget work, just barely, on my wife’s salary. I was also earning money from websites I started.

What sacrifices did you make?

You know how some people have to have the latest iPhone or handbag? That’s how we feel with saving: If we aren’t putting away money, then it’s stressful. My wife and I both grew up in households where money was tight. Both of our parents divorced when were young, and we grew up in split households with working single moms for a time. We never went hungry, but there wasn’t a ton of money.

What was difficult was writing the check for the down payment. When you grow up like we did, you don’t take money for granted. So having that nice chunk of change in our bank account was like a security blanket. It was difficult to see all that money out of our account in an instant—even if it was going toward equity.

How does it feel to live in a house you own?

We were in the same duplex apartment for seven years—it was time for a change. The first thing we did was make the place our own by repainting, making some updates, and decorating. We have a great back deck that we can sit on in the evenings and not hear the roar of the freeway like at our old place.


April 2017


The opinions and views expressed in this publication are for general information only and are not necessarily those of Mutual of America Life Insurance Company.


line separator

My Account | Hotline Plus | Careers | Site Map | Help | Text Version | Mutual of America Mobile
Home | Group Products | Individual Products | Interest Account & Investment Options | Your Retirement Center | About Us | Contact Us