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Profile of US homeowners: richer, older -- and fewer

Maybe you wanted a four-bedroom colonial, with a yard for the kids and your German shepherd. What you got was a two-bedroom town house and a plot of grass small enough to trim with sewing scissors.

Those hardy few who have recently ventured into the home-buying market know it's a jungle out there. Now a new study by the United States League of Savings Institutions confirms what we've all suspected: Rising costs are dimming the dream of home ownership for many Americans.

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Last year's housing market was ''as much a story about those who could not buy homes . . . as it was a story about those who could,'' says the league's biennial home buyer survey.

Since the league's last survey, in 1979, the median monthly housing payment has increased from $550 to $816. (Half of America's homeowners paid more than that each month, and half paid less.) The median figures show a 21.8 percent annual increase in the financial burden of buying a home.

Two main factors gave monthly payments an upward shove. The first was the rising cost of a house itself. In 1979, the median purchase price of a home was

The second was the skyrocketing cost of financing the purchase. The median mortgage rate rose from 10.60 percent in 1979 to 14.47 percent last year.

And as the cost of buying a home increases, the mythical typical home buyer changes.

First of all, the typical buyer had to be more affluent to afford the cost. Median income for home buyers increased from $28,110 in 1979 to $39,196 in 1981.

They became older, and more of them were single. The median age of those who bought homes in 1981 was 34, up from 33 in 1979 and 32 in 1977. Many more of them were unmarried, and thus unburdened by the cost of a family. Forty percent were single, compared with 30.7 percent in 1981.

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And fewer of them were first-time buyers. Only 13.5 percent of home buyers were purchasing for the first time in 1981. In 1979, 17.8 percent of the market was first-time buyers; in 1977, the figure was 36 percent.

Over the last four years, as home buying has become more difficult, many purchasers have strained their finances rather than settle for a smaller, less expensive home. The number of owners paying more than the traditional 25 percent of income for housing went up. More and more couples depended on two incomes to meet the monthly mortgage note.

Now they seem to have stopped straining and begun to settle for less. The proportion of home buyers paying more than a quarter of their income in housing expenses declined slightly from 1979 to 1981. The number of homes bought with two incomes also went down a bit.

That doesn't mean buying a home is becoming a lighter financial burden, says Thomas Parliment, a US League economist and co-author of the study. It means home buyers have reached ''the limits of accommodation.''

''There's a limit to how much your budget will stretch,'' he says.

From the confused conditions prevailing in 1981, Mr. Parliment picks several ''transitional elements'' - hints of what the housing market of the next decade will be like.

He points out that condominiums have doubled their share of the market since 1979, accounting for 21.5 percent of last year's housing purchases.

Interestingly, the median monthly cost of a condo, if association dues are included, is about the same as that of a house, according to the study.

''Condominiums are not a low-price solution for the first-time buyer,'' Mr. Parliment says.

Condo buyers were typically older, more affluent, and much less likely to be married than purchasers of single-family detached homes. The choice of condo over house was heavily influenced by life style, with condominium ownership concentrated in retirement areas or large cities rife with young professionals.

Another ''transitional element,'' according to Mr. Parliment, was a dramatic surge in the percentage of variable-rate mortgages.

Fixed-rate, long-term mortgages accounted for only 27.3 percent of all home loans last year -- a dramatic demise for the traditional form of home financing. Variable-rate mortgages made up 50.9 percent of total loans, with special financing blends accounting for the rest.

Mr. Parliment says that while consumers may yearn for the stability of a fixed payment, the era of floating rates has appeared faster than most experts predicted.

''Buyers may not like it,'' he says, ''but if they want the capital they'll have to learn to like it.''

Now that the heated real estate market of the '70s has been replaced by the turbulence of the '80s, has home ownership become a more risky investment?

''Relative to the late '70s, (houses) have ceased to be an investment (for speculation),'' Mr. Parliment says. ''But they have not ceased to be an inflation hedge for the owner-occupant.''

The dubious prize for the most expensive local housing market went to two California cities, San Francisco and the Anaheim area, which tied with a $1,242 median monthly housing cost. The West, overall, was the most expensive region for home buying in the country.

The least expensive housing stock was in the Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point, N.C., region, where the median monthly housing payment was but $537. The North Central section of the United States was the least expensive overall region.

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