First-time home buyers are no longer a force to be reckoned with.

According to new research from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), just 36% of buyers in the 12-month period between July 2010 and June 2011 were first-timers, a sharp decline from a record 50% in the last survey.

First-time buyers are key to the housing recovery because they help existing owners sell and trade up.

But even though last year's findings were boosted in part by the now expired federal home buyers tax credit, long-term averages show that four out of 10 buyers are typically rookies, said Paul Bishop, NAR's vice president of research, speaking this week at the trade group's annual convention in Anaheim.

The study -- based on 5,700 responses to a survey mailed to a list of home buyers supplied to NAR by credit repository Experian -- also found that the median age of all buyers has jumped from 39 to 45 years. The median age of first-timers is 31, but the median age of repeat buyers is now 53.

Buyers typically aren't taking any longer to make up their minds which houses to purchase, but they are looking at more properties. They also are spending two weeks looking around – mostly on the Internet – before they contact a sales professional. More than half considered a foreclosure, but most eventually ruled out a distressed property because the process was too long or too difficult, or the house in question was in poor condition.

Seventeen-percent of recent buyers reported they had no difficulty going through the process, and half said the hardest part was finding a home. But 22% had trouble with the paperwork and 17% had difficulty understanding the sales process and the steps involved.

The latest profile features a full section on financing. The principle finding: Four in ten said the mortgage application and approval process was harder than expected. That's about the same share as in the last survey, but far greater than in 2008 and 2009, when less than a third found the process more difficult than expected.

To illustrate the impact tighter lending requirements are having on the market researcher Bishop pointed out that the downpayment was a percentage point higher for both first-time buyers and as well as those moving up. Also, while the median price paid by both groups was higher, the incomes were even greater – 11% greater for repeaters.

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