Millions of Americans still trapped in debt-logged homes ten years after crisis
EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa., 2018 (Reuters) - School bus driver Michael Payne was renting an apartment on the 30th floor of a New York City high-rise, where the landlord’s idea of fixing broken windows was to cover them with boards.
So when Payne and his wife Gail saw ads in the tabloids for brand-new houses in the Pennsylvania mountains for under $200,000, they saw an escape. The middle-aged couple took out a mortgage on a $168,000, four-bedroom home in a gated community with swimming pools, tennis courts and a clubhouse.
“It was going for the American Dream,” Payne, now 61, said recently as he sat in his living room. “We felt rich.”
Today the powder-blue split-level is worth less than half of what they paid for it 12 years ago at the peak of the nation’s housing bubble.
Located about 80 miles northwest of New York City in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, their home resides in one of the sickest real estate markets in the United States, according to a Reuters analysis of data provided by a leading realty tracking firm. More than one-quarter of homeowners in Monroe County are deeply “underwater,” meaning they still owe more to their lenders than their houses are worth.
The world has moved on from the global financial crisis. Hard-hit areas such as Las Vegas and the Rust Belt cities of Pittsburgh and Cleveland have seen their fortunes improve.
But the Paynes and about 5.1 million other U.S. homeowners are still living with the fallout from the real estate bust that triggered the epic downturn.
As of June 30, nearly one in 10 American homes with mortgages were “seriously” underwater, according to Irvine, California-based ATTOM Data Solutions, meaning that their market values were at least 25 percent lower than the balance remaining on their mortgages.
It is an improvement from 2012, when average prices hit bottom and properties with severe negative equity topped out at 29 percent, or 12.8 million homes. Still, it is double the rate considered healthy by real estate analysts.
“These are the housing markets that the recovery forgot,” said Daren Blomquist, a senior vice president at ATTOM.
Lingering pain from the crash is deep. But it has fallen disproportionately on commuter towns and distant exurbs in the eastern half of the United States, a Reuters analysis of county real estate data shows. Among the hardest hit are bedroom communities in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions, where income and job growth have been weaker than the national norm.
Developments in outlying communities typically suffer in downturns. But a comeback has been harder this time around, analysts say, because the home-price run-ups were so extreme, and the economies of many of these Midwestern and Eastern metro areas have lagged those of more vibrant areas of the country.
“The markets that came roaring back are the coastal markets,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. He said land restrictions and sales to international buyers have helped buoy demand in those areas. “In the middle of the country, you have more flat-lined economies. There’s no supply constraints. All of these things have weighed on prices.”
In addition to exurbs, military communities showed high concentrations of underwater homes, the Reuters analysis showed. Five of the Top 10 underwater counties are near military bases and boast large populations of active-duty soldiers and veterans.
Many of these families obtained financing through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA makes it easy for service members to qualify for mortgages, but goes to great lengths to prevent defaults. It is a big reason many military borrowers have held on to their negative-equity homes even as millions of civilians walked away.
A poor credit history can threaten a soldier’s security clearance. And those who default risk never getting another VA loan, said Jackie Haliburton, a Veterans Service Officer in Hoke County, North Carolina, home to part of the giant Fort Bragg military installation and one of the most underwater counties in the country.
“You will keep paying, no matter what, because you want to make sure you can hang on to that benefit,” Haliburton said.
These and other casualties of the real estate meltdown are easy to overlook as homes in much of the country are again fetching record prices.
But in Underwater America, homeowners face painful choices. To sell at current prices would mean accepting huge losses and laying out cash to pay off mortgage debt. Leasing these properties often won’t cover the owners’ monthly costs. Those who default will trash their credit scores for years to come.