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WSJ, Los Angeles Times, and Zillow: One in Six U.S. Homeowners are "Under Water"

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From the Wall Street Journal: The relentless slide in home prices has left nearly one in six U.S. homeowners owing more on a mortgage than the home is worth, raising the possibility of a rise in defaults — the very misfortune that touched off the credit crisis last year.

The result of homeowners being "under water" is more pressure on an economy that is already in a downturn. No longer having equity in their homes makes people feel less rich and thus less inclined to shop at the mall.

And having more homeowners under water is likely to mean more eventual foreclosures, because it is hard for borrowers in financial trouble to refinance or sell their homes and pay off their mortgage if their debt exceeds the home’s value. A foreclosed home, in turn, tends to lower the value of other homes in its neighborhood.

About 75.5 million U.S. households own the homes they live in. After a housing slump that has pushed values down 30% in some areas, roughly 12 million households, or 16%, owe more than their homes are worth, according to Moody’s Economy.com.

The comparable figures were roughly 4% under water in 2006 and 6% last year, says the firm’s chief economist, Mark Zandi, who adds that "it is very possible that there will ultimately be more homeowners under water in this period than any time in our history."

Among people who bought within the past five years, it’s worse: 29% are under water on their mortgages, according to an estimate by real-estate Web site Zillow.com.

The majority of homeowners still have equity, and even among those who don’t, many continue to make their mortgage payments on time. The financial-bailout legislation could at least "keep things from getting much worse" by helping banks avoid the need to tighten credit further, says Celia Chen, director of housing economics at Economy.com. Still, she expects housing credit to remain tight and home prices to decline in much of the country for another year or so.

Prices are back to 2003 levels in the San Diego and Boston metropolitan areas, and back to 2004 levels in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Minneapolis, according to First American CoreLogic, a data firm in Santa Ana, Calif.

Stephanie and Jason Kirschenman thought they were being prudent when they agreed in late 2004 to buy a new four-bedroom home in Lodi, Calif., for $458,000. They put a substantial 20% down and chose a loan with a fixed interest rate for the first 10 years. Two years later, they took out a second mortgage to pay off some bills.

At the time, the home was appraised for about $550,000. But a mortgage broker recently estimated its value at well below the $380,000 the family owes on it, says Ms. Kirschenman. "We were quite shocked," she says.

The Kirschenmans, who both work for a company that makes trailer hitches, thought about sending the keys to the lender. But their financial planner, Christopher Olsen, helped persuade them to stick with the house, noting that they could still afford the payments.

Others aren’t so lucky… Click HERE for the rest of the article.

From the Los Angeles Times and Zillow: On average, those 12 million people who are under water owe about $58,000 more than their home is worth. That adds up to $676 billion of "negative equity," Zillow reports.

And that raises a question that Zillow’s top numbers cruncher, Stan Humphries, poses: If there is $676 billion in negative equity out there, how can John McCain’s mortgage purchasing plan cost only $300 billion? Humphries adds, regarding the McCain plan:

• It benefits those homeowners who assumed the most debt closest to the height of the real estate bubble.
• It could create an incentive for more homeowners to default since they could then qualify for a reduced mortgage versus having to continue paying on an underwater mortgage.
• It places the full burden of relief on taxpayers, but taxpayers get no potential upside.