Sarah Low always figured she'd have her first baby, and own her own home, by the time she turned 30.
Instead, she's 32 and living in a rented house in Hayward, Calif., with her husband and two roommates. There's no room – or money – for kids.
"At this point, if we had a child there'd be nowhere to put it," Low said. "No bedrooms left."
A new study by real estate website Zillow suggests many Bay Area women may be putting motherhood on hold at least partly because of the region's housing market. The fertility rate is dropping across the country for women between the ages of 25 and 29, but the dip is most pronounced in counties where home prices are rising rapidly – including Santa Clara, Alameda and San Francisco.
"Raising a child is a really expensive proposition," said Zillow economist Sarah Mikhitarian, "and in these markets where home prices have grown really, really quickly...it's making it really difficult to afford housing, and that could be delaying having children."
Nationally, on average, every 10 percentage point increase in home values was associated with a 1.5 percentage point drop in birth rates for women ages 25 to 29, according to the study, which chose that group as the age when women are most likely to be considering children but do not yet own their own home.
But the drop in births was even more pronounced in the Bay Area. In Santa Clara County, home values rose 58 percent between 2010 and 2016, while the fertility rate of women ages 25 to 29 dropped 20 percent. In Alameda County, home values rose 60 percent while the fertility rate dropped 24 percent. And in San Francisco, home values rose 61 percent while the fertility rate dropped 22 percent.
Nationally, the birth rate for women ages 25 to 29 was 97.9 births per 1,000 women last year – down 4 percent from 2016, and a record low for the age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Vital Statistics.
While Zillow researchers are quick to clarify that their analysis does not suggest rising home prices alone are causing falling birth rates, they say the housing market likely is a contributing factor.
It certainly was for Low and her husband, who want to buy a home and become more financially stable before having children. The couple moved back to Hayward, where Low was born and raised, after graduate school about two years ago and tried to buy a house, but quickly realized the available homes were out of their price range. The two have steady incomes – Low is a behavior analyst who works with autistic children and her husband is a physical therapist – but they also are paying off about $200,000 in student debt.
So Low and her husband figured they would rent for a year and then buy a home, but prices have climbed so steadily since then that the couple still hasn't been able to save enough for a down payment. They could move away in search of cheaper housing, but Low's friends and family are in Hayward, and she doesn't want to leave. So the couple pays $1,800 for one bedroom in a three-bedroom house that they share with Low's brother and former co-worker. Instead of a baby they have a dog – a border collie-Chihuahua mix.
As time ticks on and Low gets older, she worries they might never be in a situation where they can have children. And she says that prospect seems sad.
"Kids are great," Low said. "They're life-long companions, essentially. Once you get to the point in your life when you're retired and don't have kids, I just imagine that being kind of a lonely existence."