The U.S. negative equity rate is dropping, but more than 4 million U.S. homeowners owe the bank at least 20 percent more than their homes are worth.
That means those homes would have to appreciate at least 20 percent for their owners to have any chance of breaking even on a sale. Home values are forecast to continue rising, but at a slower pace than recent years.
The national negative equity rate dropped to 15.4 percent in the first quarter. A year ago, the rate was 18.8 percent. The rate of negative equity improved in all of the 35 largest housing markets in the first quarter of 2015, a sign that, metro-by-metro and home-by-home, the country is continuing to recover from the lax lending rules and subsequent housing market bust of the last decade.
At the peak of the real estate crisis, more than 15 million homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, putting them in negative equity. Foreclosures, short sales and rapidly rising home values freed nearly half of those homeowners, leaving 7.9 million homeowners upside down at the end of Q1 2015. Homeowners who remain underwater will likely be the toughest to free from negative equity.
Spring and summer are the busiest buying and selling seasons, and this year, there is high demand for homes in the bottom third of the market. However, a disproportionate number of those homeowners are simply stuck in their homes and can’t afford to sell to buyers looking for homes in their price range.
The rate of underwater homeowners is much higher among the homes with the least value. More than 25 percent of those who own the least valuable third of homes were upside down, compared to about 8 percent of the most valuable third of homes.
The imbalance is even more pronounced in some markets. In Atlanta, for example, 46 percent of low-end homeowners were underwater, compared with 10 percent of high-end homeowners. In Baltimore, 32 percent of low-end homeowners were in negative equity, compared to 9 percent of those who own the highest-value homes.
It’s great news that the level of negative equity is falling, but what really worries me is the depth of negative equity. Millions of Americans are so far underwater, it’s likely they may not re-gain equity for up to a decade or more at these rates. And because negative equity is concentrated so heavily at the lower end, it throws a real wrench in the traditional housing market conveyor belt. Potential first-time buyers have difficulty finding affordable homes for sale because those homes are stuck in negative equity. And owners of those homes can’t move up the chain because they’re stuck underwater in the entry-level home they bought years ago. The logjam at the bottom is having ripple effects throughout the market, and as home value growth slows, it will be years before it gets cleared up. In the meantime, we’ll be left with volatile prices, limited inventory, tepid demand, elevated foreclosures and a whole lot of frustration.
Among the 35 largest housing markets, Las Vegas, Chicago and Atlanta had the highest rates of homeowners in negative equity. A smaller share of homeowners are upside down in Miami and Detroit, but homeowners there are more deeply underwater. In both places, over 60 percent of homeowners in negative equity were more than 20 percent underwater.