It may sound like real estate industry hype: Owning a home is the best pathway to wealth.
But recently published census data dramatically suggest history backs up the property game’s marketing theme. In December 2013, the most recent data on personal assets available, the median net worth of the U.S. homeowning household was 90 times bigger than a renter.
Yes, NINETY TIMES. Or, to be precise: $199,557 vs. $2,208.
Now, you may think this math is kind of obvious. Owners are typically an older, better-educated and more-established-in-their-careers slice of society. Other census stats show the typical owner in 2013 was 55 making $60,000 a year while the median renter was 40 earning $30,000.
But the $197,349 owner-vs.-renter gap in net worth also could be used to argue that various government programs used to support homeownership — from government-backed lending programs to the mortgage-interest tax deduction — unfairly favor a wealthier class.
It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg economic debate with no simple solution. Look, a group of 43 million renter households that typically has little or no net worth is a societal challenge. You could see it two ways: those with more financial success own homes … or homeownership boosts the economically advantaged to even greater wealth.
Ownership isn’t for everybody. But the battle to build more “affordable” housing isn’t just about cutting daily household expenses for the masses, it’s about giving more folks a shot at the possible perks of ownership.
Ponder another census study, this one of 2015 household finances, which shows 4.9 percent of homeowners were “food insecure” vs. 15.5 percent of renters.
And look at how wide the net worth chasm is, according to these census breakouts. It’s clearly not just the value of an owner’s home — the median equity (home value minus mortgage owned) was $81,000 at year-end 2013.
Let’s start with some household basics.
At the bank, 94.4 percent of owners had accounts with a median $7,000 balance vs. 80.6 percent of renters with $1,189 saved.
Or car ownership: 93.4 percent of homeowners had equity in their vehicles — value above loan balances — with a median $9,288 total value vs. 69.6 percent of renters at $3,479.
And life insurance? 24.4 percent of homeowners had cash value in their policies with a median $13,000 value vs. 9.9 percent of renters with $9,000 invested.
The gap was even wider when it came to net worth tied to long-term investments that help build financial security.
Start with retirement savings, where 63.8 percent of owners had retirement assets with median $82,000 value vs. 31.8 percent of renters with $15,015 invested.
Look at money in play on Wall Street: 26.7 percent of owners had stocks or mutual fund shares with a median $40,000 value vs. 8.4 percent of renters with $10,000 invested.
And when it came to formal college funds for the kids, 5.6 percent of owners had educational savings accounts with a median $11,000 value vs. 1.6 percent of renters with $3,000 invested.
Perhaps it’s partially what owners do — often working for themselves. The census also found 16.9 percent of owners had equity in a business or their profession with a median $15,000 value vs. 9 percent of renters worth $2,800.
And homeowners do like real estate. Census found they are more likely to have additional bets on properties.
They’re landlords, too: 10.4 percent of owners had rental property equity with a median $85,000 value vs. 2.2 percent of renters with $46,500 invested.
Or they make other real estate plays, such as vacation homes: 11.2 percent of owners had additional real estate equity with median $58,000 value vs. 2.4 percent of renters with $35,000 invested.
Back in late 2013, when this data was collected, the economy was gaining serious momentum in its recovery from the Great Recession.
Since then, values in real estate and stocks soared. One key stock benchmark is up 38 percent since 2014 started, and a home-price index has jumped 17 percent.
Debate all you want about why this gap exists, or how to narrow it, but it’s a good bet this wealth divide is even far wider today.