Real Estate & Mortgage Insights

Despite Rising Home Prices, a Third of Homeowners Still Underwater

Home prices have been rising on a national level for several months now, but surprisingly the number of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages has also continued to increase, according to real estate data company Zillow.

During the first quarter of this year, 31.4 percent of all U.S. homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, up from 31.1 percent during the previous quarter. The current rate is down slightly from one year ago though when 32.4 percent of all borrowers were underwater.

Curiously, during the same three months of this year, national home prices rose 0.6 percent, the first gain since 2007, according to a report from the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The discrepancy seems to lie in the backup of foreclosure processing kicked off by the robo-signing scandal. Many delinquent borrowers have been hanging on the balance sheets, as banks have not yet had time to repossess the homes. Once the banks have taken back those foreclosed homes, those borrowers will no longer count in the negative equity totals.

Having such a large share of the population underwater has been a serious obstacle to the housing recovery. Borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth are unable to sell when new job opportunities arise elsewhere or when personal or medical emergencies strike. If they have a lot of negative equity, they are also much more likely to walk away from their homes, fearing they will never recoup the losses in the future.

However, Zillow said that as this point nine out of 10 borrowers with negative equity are still making their payments and are current on their mortgages. It is just the remaining 10 percent that are seriously behind on payments by 90 days or more.

"Negative equity does not necessarily equal foreclosure," said Stan Humphries, Zillow's chief economist. "Most people are holding in place and paying their mortgages."

That's likely because many borrowers are just barely underwater, with great hopes that they will recover the equity within the next few years. Zillow reported that about 40 percent of underwater borrowers owe between 1 percent and 20 percent more than their homes are worth. Others may not even know they are underwater if they haven't tried to refinance or sell recently.

Still, there are plenty of people who are seriously underwater. Roughly 15 percent—or 2.4 million people—of borrowers with negative equity owe more than twice the current market value of their properties.

The worst hit real estate area is Las Vegas. There, a whopping 71 percent of homeowners are underwater on their loans, with a quarter of them owing double what their homes would sell for. Home prices have fallen 62 percent from their housing bubble peak, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index.

Those at Zillow are confident though, that the problem will soon start to dissipate on a national level.

"[It's] important to note that negative equity remains only a paper loss for the vast majority of underwater homeowners,"Humphries said. "As home values slowly increase and these homeowners continue to pay down their principal, they will surface again."

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