Even in the face of rising mortgage rates and stagnating construction numbers, the housing market is still scorching hot. Because of this, it might be hard to believe that more than 16 million homes across the country are sitting vacant.
But this doesn’t mean millions of abandoned and dilapidated homes are withering away in the suburbs, according to Jacob Channel, the author of the report and LendingTree’s senior economic analyst. He said vacant homes can be unoccupied for many reasons beyond being uninhabitable. For example, a house can be vacant because it’s still on the market to be sold or rented or it’s a vacation home not currently in use.
Regardless of why homes are vacant, knowing an area’s vacancy rate can be an important part of understanding the overall health of its housing market.
To get a sense of vacancy rates, LendingTree analyzed the latest Census Bureau data to rank the nation’s 50 states by their shares of unoccupied homes.
The survey found that Vermont, Maine and Alaska are the states with the highest vacancy rates. Vacancy rates in these states are 22.86%, 22.68% and 20.51%, respectively. In total, that translates to more than 315,000 unoccupied houses across the three states.
Oregon has the lowest vacancy rate at 7.76%, followed by Washington at 7.87% and Connecticut at 8.09%. While these states have the lowest vacancy rates, that doesn’t mean they have the fewest vacant homes. With almost 521,000 unoccupied housing units across the three states, there are nearly 206,000 more vacant homes across Oregon, Washington and Connecticut than in Vermont, Maine and Alaska.
Home prices in states with higher vacancy rates are often — but not always — lower than in states with lower vacancy rates. Median home prices across the 10 states with the highest vacancy rates are an average of about $18,000 lower than in the 10 states with the lowest vacancy rates.
Though areas with higher vacancy rates are often less expensive, that isn’t always the case. Channel said, that there are several notable instances where a state’s median home price and its vacancy rate can both be relatively steep.
“In theory, vacancy rates should have a strong inverse relationship to home prices,” said Channel. “In other words, a high vacancy rate would signify a lack of demand from buyers, which in turn would result in a larger supply of homes on the market and lower prices. The inverse would also be true where a low vacancy rate would signify a strong demand from buyers, less supply on the market and higher prices.”
“Because of this, it may be tempting to blame the current hot housing market solely on an overabundance of vacant homes on the market,” Channel said, adding: “As is often the case when economic theory unfolds in real life, this theoretical framework doesn’t always hold. For example, the median home price in Alaska — the state with the third-highest vacancy rate — is about $12,000 higher than the median home price in Oregon, where vacancy rates are the lowest in the nation.”
He said this means there are many other factors in play that help dictate home price, like location, the kind of rates being offered to borrowers, square footage and the reasons why homes are sitting unoccupied — to name a few.
“Because of this, vacancy rates alone can’t fully explain why homes are so expensive,” said Channel. “But that doesn’t mean that vacancy rates are unimportant. Understanding an area’s vacancy rate can help shed light on how buyers and homeowners behave.”
“For example, if both vacancy rates and home prices are relatively low, it could mean that sellers are parting with their homes for less money than they could have potentially gotten,” he said. “If vacancy rates are low and housing prices are high, it could signify that the market is highly competitive and that lower-income people might have a problem finding a house.”
On the flip side, Channel said high vacancy rates and high home prices can suggest that an area has unique characteristics, such as being a vacation hot spot or targeted by investors. Meanwhile, high vacancy rates and low home prices might mean an area is experiencing socioeconomic hardships.
With high prices, rates rising over the last few months and a limited number of homes available for sale, it can be tricky for buyers to navigate today’s housing market. But by keeping the following tips in mind, homebuyers might find dealing with the market less daunting than they initially expected.
Shop around for the best possible rate. Channel said that although rates have recently fallen, the longer term trend since January is that they’re on the rise. “Even accounting for this recent decline, the average 30-year, fixed mortgage rate is still sitting at 3.76%,” he said. “This is significantly higher than the record lows of under 3% that we saw during the height of the pandemic, and even higher than what it was in January of 2020 before the pandemic really started to have a major impact on the U.S. economy.”
Channel said, “By shopping around and making different lenders compete for your business before you get a mortgage, you may be able to secure a lower interest rate than you would have had you gone with the first lender. The lower your rate, the less money you’ll need to spend on housing costs each month and the more expensive a home you’ll be able to afford.”
Consider different loan options. Not all lenders have the same mortgage requirements. If you’re worried that you won’t qualify for a traditional 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, you may still find that you can get approved for loans from places like the Federal Housing Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Don’t rush. With mortgage rates rising, you might feel pressure to rush into buying a house so that you can avoid paying higher interest. However, if you’re not in a position where you can comfortably afford a home or where you’re unsure if you want to be a homeowner, it may not be the best idea to buy right away. Being stuck in a home that you can’t afford or don’t want to live in can be worse than taking your time and potentially ending up with a slightly higher interest rate.
“Ultimately, nobody can predict the future, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will end up impacting the U.S. economy in the long-run,” said Channel. “Heck, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how a new Covid variant could end up impacting the economy.”
He added, “As things stand, even in the face of what’s going on in Ukraine, I still believe that the longer-term trend for mortgage rates this year will be an upward one. This is especially true given that as of now the conflict in Ukraine hasn’t seemed to have had an earth-shattering economic impact on the U.S. and that even in the face of the conflict, the Fed is still poised to raise interest rates. Of course, I could be wrong but we’ll need months, as opposed to weeks, worth of new data before any conclusions can be drawn.”