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The homeownership rate has plunged more than people realize

After the housing bubble pushed up homeownership rates to historic highs, we've crashed to a new historic low in homeownership — at least for non-retired Americans. That's according to the latest State of the Nation's Housing report from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, which shows that aggregate numbers mislead.

First up, the report shows a chart illustrating a trend that gets circulated a lot — homeownership spiked because of the mortgage lending boom, and now has reverted to its normal level:

But a big underlying trend in America these days is the growing number of senior citizens. The report shows that if you break out homeownership by age bracket, the "return to normal" is really an illusion. Old people are more likely than ever to own a home — and more numerous in the population — but younger cohorts are all owning homes at abnormally low levels.

Joint Center for Housing Studies

One upshot of this is that the 55-to-64 cohort, in particular, is even worse prepared for retirement than a conventional scan of financial assets held in 401(k) and IRA plans would reveal. Older homeowners have typically paid down a large share of their mortgage and have successfully turned their house into a savings vehicle, but the unusually low level of homeownership among Americans of this approximate age means that won't be available to them.