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U.S. families' debt loads decline to pre-recession levels

The amount of home mortgages, credit card debt and most other consumer liabilities now stands on par with 2006 or earlier, according to Moody's Analytics data.

October 15, 2012|By Don Lee, Los Angeles Times

"While some households have dramatically reduced their debt load by defaulting" mainly on home loans, she wrote recently, "others who found themselves highly leveraged immediately following the financial crisis have remained so."

What's more, although lower interest rates have helped higher-income or qualified borrowers get even cheaper financing, many others with weaker credit scores have had far less success.

"It's become more polarized," said Richard Cirelli, president of RTC Mortgage Corp. in Laguna Beach, using a term that has come to characterize job growth and broader economic trends in America. "The ones who can are taking advantage of it. The ones who can't are probably getting deeper into debt."

About a year ago, Irwin Resnick and his wife were thrilled to refinance the $85,000 mortgage on their home in Delray Beach, Fla. For eight years, they had a 30-year loan with a rate of 6.75%. They cut both the loan term and the interest rate in half.

"We knocked seven years off our term and are paying about $35 a month less than before," he said.

Thirty miles down the southern Florida coastline, Mike Vaupel Jr., 34, remains stuck in debt.

During the bubble years, he easily got three credit cards with a total limit of $25,000. Vaupel maxed out on the cards, using them to buy a car and pay off a loan that he took out to go to broadcasting trade school.

As long as he was employed, he had enough to service those debts, making a little more than the minimum payments every month.

But in early 2010, he said, "the wheels fell off." He lost his job at a radio station, and with a baby on the way later that year, Vaupel and his wife moved into his parents' home, where they have been ever since.

Unable to keep up with his monthly payments, the interest rate on the cards shot up, and what was once a balance of $25,000 ballooned to $34,000.

Vaupel recently landed a job as a security guard, making $9.80 an hour. He also helps out at his wife's cleaning business. The couple plan to move into their own apartment soon, and Vaupel is working up a plan to pay down their debts, though he knows it will be a long and slow process.

"I don't want this hanging over my head," he said.

don.lee@latimes.com

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