Thursday, April 10, 2008

Most Homeowners Are Not in Trouble

"Tapped-Out Consumers" was the recent headline in a Business Week article about the unfolding housing crisis. The New York Times chimed in with the sweeping claim that "Everyone from first-time homebuyers to Wall Street chief executives made bets they did not fully understand, and then spent money as if those bets couldn't go bad."

Everyone made bets? Time out. Let's check those breathless reports from the front lines of the housing crisis.

In fact, the unfolding housing crisis is hurting only a tiny percentage of homeowners. To get a realistic perspective, you have to look beyond the numerator--the people in trouble. You must also consider the denominator--the total number of homeowners. The denominator is HUGE. Last year there were 75 million homeowners in the United States. Few of them are in trouble.

Here's why: nearly one-third of the nation's homeowners--24 million--own their home free and clear, according to the latest statistics from the American Community Survey. That means they have no mortgage, no home equity loans, and are in no danger of foreclosure. While the decline in housing values may make them uncomfortable, it will not affect their bottom line unless, for some reason, they have to sell their house before housing prices resume their historically slow upward climb.

Things are not all that bad for the 51 million homeowners with a mortgage either. Most have managed their asset wisely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the nation's financial institutions, which is the reason our economy is on the brink of recession. Let's look at the facts.

1. Most homeowners with a mortgage have a traditional loan. Fully 81 percent of homeowners with a mortgage have a fixed-rate loan, and their median interest rate is just 6 percent according to the American Housing Survey.

2. Most homeowners have a substantial cushion of equity in their home, a cushion that will protect them from all but the most catastrophic price drops. Homeowners with a mortgage owe, on average, only 55 percent of their home's value--leaving room for a substantial price decline before they are in hot water.

3. Most homeowners have NOT used their home as an ATM machine. Only 13 percent of the nation's 75 million homeowners even have a home equity loan, according to the American Community Survey. This fact bears repeating because the media narrative has "everyone" spending down their housing equity on granite countertops and large-screen TVs. To repeat, more than 85 percent of the nation's homeowners do NOT have a home equity loan.

Of course, in a housing market as large as ours, even a small percentage in trouble means millions are drowning. The American Housing Survey reveals that only 3 percent of homeowners owe more than their house is worth, for example, but that 3 percent amounts to 2.5 million homeowners. Even so, these numbers are a far cry from "everyone." Everyone did not make foolish bets, but the unfolding crisis shows that everyone will be hurt by the few homeowners and the many financial institutions that did.

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