Despite climbing interest rates, first-time homebuyers were in the majority in the housing market last year.

Chicago Title and Trust Co., reporting on a recent survey, said the dominance of first-timers was somewhat surprising because the group currently entering the housing market was born during a period when the United States had a low birth rate.

"Apparently, the parents of a statistically significant percentage of buyers entering the U.S. housing market for the first time in this decade were born on foreign soil," was an explanation offered in the study report.

Chicago Title said people who have never married accounted for an increasingly large part of the market in the past few years. In 1994, 17.7% of all homes sold in the United States were to buyers who had never married. This was down 2 percentage points from the level in the previous year, but is still historically high, the report said.

"One factor explaining this surprising growth in first-time home buying nationwide is the fact that first-timers wanted to get in the market before interest rates went up any further," said John Pfister, vice president at Chicago Title and Trust.

The never-married singles made up 29.6% of all first-time home buyers in 1994, but only 7.1% of repeat buyers.

While home prices increased in 1994, salaries of first-time buyers decreased. Many first-time buyers used small down payments and opted for adjustable rate loans. ARMs were used by 32.7% of first-time buyers last year, up from 20.1% in 1993. Adjustables were more popular in higher-cost markets.

On average, first-time buyers devoted 34% of after-tax monthly income to mortgage payments, up from 32.2% in 1993.

A profile of the average first-time home buyer in 1994 was compiled from those surveyed. The average age was 31.6 years, unchanged from 1993, and the average family size 2.7 people, up from 2.5 the previous year. They looked at 12.5 homes in 4.8 months before deciding on a purchase and saved three years for a down payment, up from 2.8 years in 1993.

Repeat buyers, on average, looked at 15.7 homes over 4.7 months. The average age was 41.7 years with three family members. Married couples accounted for 75% of repeat buyers, with 74.9% having two incomes.

"It seems that a growing number of repeat buyers were able to either regain confidence in the economy or overcome insecurities related to trends in corporate America and concerns about their personal prospects for the future," the report said.

The average home price in 1994 went up 2.5% to $177,200. The average price of homes for first-time buyers was $143,300, with only 16% buying new homes, down from 20% in 1993.

The 18 markets surveyed were chosen for their distinct market characteristics. Together they account for one-third of all home sales in the United States and half of urban home sales. Among the findings about the individual markets were these:

* San Francisco had the highest average monthly mortgage payment at $1,393, while Cleveland was the lowest at $692.

* Cleveland also had the lowest median household income at $49,800.

* The highest average percentage of after-tax income as a mortgage payment was in New York City - 39.2%. The lowest was in Memphis, 27.1%.

* Memphis also had the lowest median sales price at $87,400. In addition, New York City had the highest percentage of the sales price for a down payment at 29.1% for all buyers, and 40.2% for repeat buyers.

With those high payments, it might be expected that New York City also had the highest prices, but that distinction fell to San Francisco - with a median price of $248,700 and average of $267,500.

In terms of new homes as a percentage of total sales, the leader was the Atlanta metropolitan area, at 48% - up from 43.7% in 1993. The lowest percentage of new home buyers was in Boston - 11.3%. Home buyers in San Francisco needed 4.9 years to save for a down payment, longer than anywhere else.

A telephone survey of the 18 markets was done by Market Fact in December 1994; included were 5,000 home sales from January to early December.

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