The claim: Home prices would average $61,000 today if prices grew at the same rate as median income over the past 50 years
Millennials have been criticized and ridiculed for buying homes later in life than their Baby Boomer counterparts, most famously when an Australian millionaire seemed to suggest that millennials' spending on avocado toast and $4 coffees was the root of the problem.
Young Americans have pushed back by pointing out that U.S. homes are less affordable today than in the past. Recent viral TikTok, Twitter and Facebook posts present one such argument on affordability.
The posts claim that if incomes had kept up with home prices over the past 50 years, prospective homeowners would pay less than a fifth of what a typical home costs today.
“If the price of houses had risen at the same rate as median income in this country, then a house in 2021 would cost an average of $61,000,” reads an Aug. 3 tweet.
The tweet, based on a popular TikTok video, accumulated more than 34,000 retweets within a month. Similar claims have been shared thousands of times on Facebook, including a Sept. 1 post shared nearly 9,000 times in a few weeks.
But the claim is wrong. If the median home price grew at the same rate as the median household income since 1970, it would be about $134,000 today. Even that figure shouldn't be taken at face value, though, since experts say such comparisons can mislead without context about the many economic and geographic factors that influence home prices.
USA TODAY reached out to social media users who shared the claim for comment.
Post erroneously compares different types of income
The viral tweet stemming from the TikTok video said U.S. homes would cost around $61,000 if prices had risen at the same rate as income over the past 50 years, but that's based on a calculation error.
The figure is skewed because, instead of comparing the same types of income, TikTok user Madeline Pendleton compared median family income in 1970 to median personal income in 2019. As a result, Pendleton claimed median income increased from $9,870 to $35,977.
Looking at the median household income in 1970 and 2019 is a more accurate, apples-to-apples comparison, and it's a metric the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies uses to compare home prices and income. Using that measure, income increased from $8,730 to $68,703 since 1970, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Based on a median home value of $17,000 in 1970, today's median home price would be $133,786 if it had increased at the same rate as household income. That's more than double Pendleton’s estimate, but it's still well below the median price of homes sold in the second quarter of 2021.
(The viral tweet screenshotted on Facebook said homes would cost "an average of $61,000," but the TikTok cited by the tweet's author is calculated based on medians, not averages. Median home sale prices are generally used as a national index rather than averages because a few extremely expensive homes can significantly skew an average.)
Experts say it's difficult to compare home sales in 1970, 2021
But the math isn't all that's wrong with this claim, experts say. It fails to factor in many other things that have influenced home prices over the last 50 years.
Alexander Hermann, a senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Housing Studies, said interest rates are at a historic low, which allows homeowners to sell at higher prices without significantly changing buyers’ monthly mortgage payments.
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Another complicating factor: Housing markets are variable based on location, so a national statistic isn't going to apply evenly everywhere.
"You're including (in a national median) the most rural areas in the country and San Francisco," Erica Groshen, a Cornell University labor economist who served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2014-2017, told USA TODAY. "There are a lot of places in the country where housing prices haven't increased very much at all."
For example, home prices in the San Diego-Carlsbad region are now more than eight times higher than the median income there, but the area had a much lower price-to-income ratio (around 4) in the 80s, data from the Joint Center for Housing Studies shows. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh and St. Louis regions are among parts of the country that have experienced little change in affordability over the last forty years.
It's also important to remember that a house in 1970 is not necessarily comparable to a house in 2021, Groshen said, because it did not have many of the same amenities.
“Some people talk about how the cost of living was much lower in 1880 compared to the income ... but do you really want to live in a world without antibiotics?" Groshen said. "There are these big jumps that are hard to express in just these year-to-year quality changes."
Finally, housing prices are linked to supply and demand in the market, not necessarily incomes, Hermann said.
Price-to-income ratio shows homeownership less accessible today
Experts say there's a simpler and more accurate metric to show how the affordability of homes has changed over the past 50 years: the price-to-income ratio.
Though there are limitations, data using this metric suggests homes are far less affordable for lower- and middle-income Americans today.
Hermann said the median sale price of a home was equivalent to roughly 2.6 years of median household income in 1970. In 2020, it was equivalent to 4.4 years of median income, a recent report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies shows.
As this ratio increases, homeownership becomes less accessible. Higher sale prices almost always mean higher down payments, which creates a greater barrier to entry for middle- and lower-income households, Hermann said.
This analysis is limited by factors like low interest rates and local fluctuations in home prices. But Hermann said the statistics still show that homeownership is less accessible now than it was in most of U.S. history.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that home prices would average $61,000 today if prices grew at the same rate as median income over the past 50 years.
The median home price today would be $133,786 if it had grown at the same rate as median household income since 1970. The TikTok user who calculated the $61,000 figure underestimated income growth by erroneously comparing median family income in 1970 to median personal income in 2019. In addition, experts say a comparison between median income and sale prices is overly simplistic and potentially misleading given the many economic and geographic factors that influence home prices.
Our fact-check sources:
Alexander Hermann, Sept. 8, Phone interview with USA TODAY
Erica Groshen, Septt. 8, Phone interview with USA TODAY
@CrappyFumes, Aug. 3, Twitter
Madeline Pendleton, July 31, TikTok
U.S. Census Bureau, May 20, 1971, Median Family Income Up in 1970 (report number P60-78)
U.S. Census Bureau, July 27, 1971, Household Income in 1970 and Selected Social and Economic Characteristics of Households
U.S. Census Bureau, Sept. 15, 2020, Was Household Income the Highest Ever in 2019?
U.S. Census Bureau, June 6, 2012, Historical Census of Housing Tables - Home Values
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, updated July 26, Median Sales Price of Houses Sold for the United States
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, accessed Sept. 21, Average Sales Prices of Houses in the United States
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, accessed Sept. ,
Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, September 2018, Figure 2: The Median Sale Price in 2017 is More than Four Times the Median Household Income
Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2021, The State of the Nation's Housing
Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, Sept. 13, 2018, Price-To-Income Ratios Are Nearing Historic Highs
Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, Sept. 13, 2018, Home Price-to-Income Ratios, 1980 - 2017
The Wall Street Journal, April 15, U.S. Housing Market Is Nearly 4 Million Homes Short of Buyer Demand
CNBC News, April 24, 2017, Here's the surprising truth about first-time homebuyers
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: TikTok misleads on median income, home price since 1970