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Most homeowners still faring well, with positive equity

Nearly half of all owners with mortgages have at least 25% equity stakes in their properties, and about a quarter of owners with mortgages have more than 50% equity, a new study shows.

October 02, 2011|By Kenneth R. Harney

Reporting from Washington — Negative equity and underwater homeowners are frequently in the headlines, but what about positive equity in Americans' homes?

Is there much of it left after the wealth-killing recession and real estate bust? Where is it? Who's got equity? You might be surprised.

A new study, conducted by mortgage and real estate data firm CoreLogic for this column, found that there are substantial reserves of positive equity across the country. CoreLogic maintains the largest database on home loans — 42 million active accounts, more than 80% of all existing mortgages — with information supplied regularly by lenders and servicers.

First some basics on equity. The Federal Reserve estimates that at the end of June, Americans held $6.2 trillion in equity in their homes. This was down sharply from $13.2 trillion in 2005. Roughly 1 of every 3 homes is mortgage-free, according to federal and industry estimates.

Among owners who have mortgages, according to CoreLogic, 48.5% have at least 25% equity stakes in their properties. Roughly a quarter of owners with mortgages — 24.6% — have more than 50% equity.

At the other end of the spectrum, 22.5% of owners are in negative equity positions, burdened with houses worth less than their mortgage balances.

Where do owners have the highest equity holdings? Two states with very different economic profiles top the list — New York, where 48.8% of owners have greater than 50% equity positions, and Hawaii (43.7%). Both states also have exceptionally low incidences of negative equity. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and New Jersey all have equity positions far above the national average. In the District, for example, 35.1% of all owners have 50% equity in their homes or more. In Connecticut it's 37%, Massachusetts, 36%, and New Jersey, 34.6%.

Sam Khater, senior economist for CoreLogic, says that states with high equity levels tend to be relatively affluent — or at least have sizable pockets of affluence — plus relatively low levels of mobility and in-migration. They also did not experience rampant construction booms on suburban land tracts during the years 2003-07, or heavy use of zany financing. They saw appreciation in real estate values, but not double digits a month as occurred in some parts of the country.

California exhibits not only the stable, relatively affluent, low-construction characteristics of high-equity areas but also has wide swaths that saw the reverse.

"It's kind of a barbell state," said Khater, with above-average numbers of owners holding 50% equity or more — typically in or near coastal cities — combined with large numbers of owners in deep negative equity, clustered in the interior counties and the Central Valley. While 26% of California owners have 50% or greater equity stakes — above the national average — nearly 1 out of 5 owes 20% to 50% or more on their mortgages than their home value.

The states where people tend to have the least favorable equity positions aren't hard to guess. Just 7.5% of Nevada owners have equity of 50% or greater. At the other extreme, 30% have mortgage debt that is 50% or more than their property values. Almost 58% of all Nevada owners are in negative equity positions, according to the CoreLogic data.

Arizona has the second-worst situation on negative equity, with 49% of owners underwater, followed by Florida with 45%. But unlike Nevada, Florida and Arizona have higher numbers of owners who still have solid equity holdings. In Florida, more than 1 of every 6 owners have 50% or higher equity. In Arizona 1 of every 8 does.

A handful of states that never saw the unrestrained price run-ups experienced in Nevada or Florida, and that have large numbers of owners with hefty equity positions, nonetheless have substantial numbers of underwater owners.

Virginia, with a sizable population of affluent owners in the northern suburbs bordering Washington D.C., has a negative equity rate of 22.8%. Maryland, which has a rate of equity-rich ownership above the national average, also has an above-average rate of negative equity — 23.5% of owners are underwater.

What to make of all these numbers? Equity holdings declined virtually everywhere during the real estate and mortgage busts, but $6 trillion-plus of it is still out there. Most owners are still faring relatively well in terms of home equity — they've got at least 25% stakes or nearly that much.

You just don't hear about it.

kenharney@earthlink.net

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.

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