It’s hard to imagine, but at one point it was common for young adults in King County to be homeowners. In 1960, nearly half (48%) of under-35 households in King County owned homes.

Since then the homeownership rate among young people has been cut in half. New census data shows that only 24% of under-35 households in the county are owners.

Around 55,000 under-35 households were homeowners in King County in 2020 — and that’s after the number declined a little since 2010.

Meanwhile, the number of young renter households has surged. In 2020, there were about 172,000 under-35 renter households in the county, up 27% from 2010. Rental units include both traditional apartments as well as houses rented out by the owners.

A lot of this shift has to do with the local real-estate market, of course. Last month the median home price in King County was $995,000 — even for a high-earning tech worker, buying a home young would be a stretch.

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Another factor is that the Seattle area now attracts a lot of transplants from around the country and the world. Many come for career opportunities, and may not know how long they’ll wind up staying in the area, so renting could make more sense.

With home prices so high, it’s not surprising that renter households have grown faster than owner-occupied ones over the past decade. From 2010 to 2020, King County had a net gain of more than 78,000 renter-occupied units, far outpacing the 40,000-unit increase in owner-occupied homes. Rental units increased faster than owned homes both in Seattle and in the surrounding King County. The figures for 2020 and 2010 are averages for five years of data: The 2020 release captures the 2016-2020 period and the 2010 release captures the 2006-2010 period.

Home prices aren’t the only thing that’s changed since 1960 that may be impacting homeownership rates among young adults.

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People commonly buy their first home after getting married or starting a family. In 1960 the median age for a first marriage in the U.S. was 20 for women and 23 for men. In 2021, it was 29 for women and 30 for men. The average age of first-time mothers was 21 in 1972 and 26 in 2018 (and even older in King County, at 29). Census data records the age of the homeowner, which in the case of a married couple can be either spouse.

With more young adults today being unmarried and childless, homeownership may get back-burnered.

And it hasn’t been just young people who are more likely to rent — the percentage of renter-occupied units grew by double digits among all age groups from 2010 to 2020.

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Because rental units increased faster than owned homes, the homeownership rate took a hit. In 2020, 56.5% of housing units in the county were owner-occupied — the lowest rate since the 1940s.

In 1940, just about half the homes in King County were owner-occupied. But the suburban boom in the postwar period, buoyed by the GI Bill, helped create a generation of homeowners. By 1950, 63% of county housing units were owned.

The peak year for homeownership in King County was 1960, at 65%. The rate has gradually declined since then, dropping just below 60% in 1990, where it’s remained (although it did briefly rise above 60% again during the housing-bubble era).

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With fewer young adults owning homes in King County, the age of those who do own has gone up significantly over the past decade.

Census data shows that from 2010 to 2020, the number of homeowners age 55 and older increased by close to 56,000, while the number of owners younger than 55 — that includes the millennial and Gen X generations — fell by 16,000.

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Nearly half (47%) of all homeowners in the county were 55 and older in 2020, up from a little less than 40% in 2010.

If it sounds as though older people suddenly started buying up all the homes in the area, that’s not exactly what happened.

The massive baby boom generation — most of whom already owned homes — matured past age 55 in the past decade. That helped swell the ranks of homeowners in this age bracket. It also hollowed out the number of homeowners in the 35-54 age group.

But it’s also true that in such an expensive market, homebuyers will tend to be older and in (or past) their peak earning years.