Huge mortgage debts keep the housing market tumbling

Experts have been calling for the bottom of the housing market each year since the crash, and prices continue to tumble. Why? In an overwhelming number of cases, homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their houses are actually worth.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
This February 2012 file photo shows a for sale sign in front of a home, in Yardley, Pa. The housing market continues to fall, and according to French, mortgages worth more than the homes they're attached to may be largely to blame.

According to real estate site Zillow, almost 16 million homeowners owe more on their mortgage than the underlying collateral is worth.  At the same time, the LA Times reports that 90% of these underwater homeowners are current on their mortgage payments.

Nevada has the highest percentage of upside down homeowners at 67%.  And while I don’t know for sure, based on stories from people in the real estate business in Las Vegas, there are likely thousands of homeowners in that city who not only are not current on their mortgage payments, but haven’t made a payment in many months.

Zillow has this very cool interactive negative equity map showing a large percentage of homes in Clark County Nevada are underwater more than double the value of the home..  Arizona’s Maricopa Country and Ventura County in California also have sizable populations of homeowners in the same predicament.

Alejandro Lazo writes for the LA Times,

In roughly 10% of Southern California cities, 1 of every 5 homeowners with a mortgage owes double the value of the house, according to the data, released Wednesday. As sales and prices improve, some economists expect homeowners who have been stuck in underwater properties to try to sell their homes, muting any significant price appreciation.

While people aren’t walking away in droves, people are stuck where they are and not able to take advantage of job opportunities.

“People don’t like to walk away from something they have put money into,”Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, told the Times. “People seem to hate realizing losses.”  Yes, indeed.  In Chapter 9 of Walk Away I point out,

Underwater homeowners aren’t walking away because they feel a duty to satisfy their lenders. It’s because they don’t wish to feel the regret of buying at the top of the housing market using too much debt.  And instead of doing the financially rational thing and walking away,  some keep paying, rationalizing that they are duty-bound to pay the note until the bitter end, but secretly hoping their financial acumen will be resurrected by a rally in home prices. A prospect that in many cities is hopeless.

Experts have been calling for the bottom of the housing market each year since the crash, and prices continue to tumble because of this overhang in negative equity.   This year is no different.  Even investor savant Warren Buffett told CNBC he’d buy a couple hundred thousand houses if he could.

If Mr. Buffett comes calling, and the bank will approve the short-sale, take him up on it.

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