Look at the top-line numbers and the U.S. economy is doing great -- unemployment is at its lowest level in decades, GDP has been growing for more than 120 straight months, and after a long period of stagnation, wages are finally starting to creep up

But listen to some presidential contenders and pundits and the picture is the complete opposite. The vast majority of Americans are struggling to make ends meet and the system is in need of a fundamental overhaul. 

Which picture is right? Economists will debate (as economists always do) but one new report offers startling ammunition for those who argue something is very wrong with our economy. The new numbers from property-data firm Attom Data Solutions show that in a whopping 74 percent of America, the average family can't afford to buy the median home. That's up from 71 percent of the country just six months ago.  

It's rough out there for homebuyers. 

To figure this out Attom went county by county and totted up the monthly payment for the average home, including mortgage, property taxes, and insurance, assuming a family could only afford to put three percent down. They then compared this amount to the average weekly wage for the area as compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The results were grim. 

Not only did the usual expensive metro areas like Los Angeles and New York rate as unaffordable, but so did many regions many of us think of as far more accessible, like Detroit and Cleveland. In fact in a full three quarters of the country, home ownership was out of reach for the average worker. 

"Prices are going up substantially faster than earnings in 2019 without any immediate end in sight, which continues to make home ownership difficult or impossible for a majority of single-income households and even for many families with two incomes," Todd Teta, Attom's chief product officer, said in the report. (Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

What's behind the grim statistics? 

Why are things so hard for those hoping to buy a home? Attom points the finger of blame mostly at lagging supply. Enough homes to meet demand and keep prices down simply aren't being built. 

"After the recession, home-building activity was slow to rebound and mostly concentrated in the most expensive tier of the market for single-family homes. As newer homes didn't come on line to meet the growing demand, particularly for cheaper starter homes, competition for properties heated up, and bidding wars pushed home prices even high across much of the country," explains MarketWatch

A recent increase in building could bring relief, but MarketWatch warns against getting too excited. If interest rates climb or the economy sinks, builders could pull back once again. 

Zoning laws that limit construction to single family homes on 75 percent of city land across America also contribute to the shortage of more affordable options. Many municipalities are trying to loosen these restrictions but are facing pushback from existing homeowners, the New York Times reports

How these battles play out is likely to affect whether Americans in the three quarters of the country where homeownership is often out of reach get a shot at buying their own place. As will the pace of new home building. 

In the meantime it's rough out their for homebuyers. So if you're feeling frustrated about being priced out of your neighborhood at least I can report you are really, really not alone. 

Published on: Oct 3, 2019
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