Number of underwater homeowners continues to decline

September 5, 2013

While rising home prices have lifted many homeowners whose homes lost value during the economic downturn out of negative equity, there remain a significant number who are underwater.

According to the housing data company RealtyTrac, there were 10.7 million U.S. homeowners who owed at least 25 percent more on their mortgages than their homes were worth as of the beginning of September. However, that number has been dropping. It was down from 11.3 million in May and 12.5 million in September 2012. You can read the report here.

In the Washington region, Maryland had the most homeowners who owed at least 25 percent more on their mortgages than their properties were worth (352,233), followed by Virginia (144,104) and the District (17,634). Because the regions vary in size, it is perhaps more helpful to look at the number as a percentage of total mortgages in the state. In Maryland, 25 percent of all mortgages are what RealtyTrac classifies as “deeply underwater.” In Virginia, it is 15 percent and in the District, it is 14 percent.

Nevada (46 percent), Illinois (40 percent), Florida (40 percent), Michigan (38 percent), Rhode Island (34 percent) and Ohio (31 percent) are among the states with the highest percentage of deeply underwater homes.

“Steadily rising home prices are lifting all boats in this housing market and should spill over into more inventory of homes for sale in the coming months,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac.

RealtyTrac used mortgage and deed of trust documents filed with the county and estimated property value data to arrive at its calculations.

The company found an unexpectedly high number of homeowners who are going through the foreclosure process despite having equity in their homes. According to its data, RealtyTrac estimates 24 percent of the U.S. homes in the foreclosure process have equity.

“One of the reasons we wanted to highlight that is because it is surprising,” Blomquist said. “You would think anybody that has equity should have an escape hatch to avoid foreclosure. But I think there are two issues: one, unfortunately, is ignorance. Homeowners don’t always know that equity gives them options to avoid foreclosure. Two, the rising home prices may have put people who started foreclosure a year or two ago now into positive equity territory.”

Blomquist said that real estate agents have been telling him that many of their clients who were eligible for short sales a year ago are now turning into equity sales because of rising home prices.

“Nearly one in four homeowners [nationwide] in foreclosure has at least some equity, giving them a better chance to avoid foreclosure without resorting to a short sale — assuming they realize they have equity and don’t miss the opportunity to leverage that equity,” he said.

RealtyTrac found that in Virginia 35 percent of the homes in the foreclosure process have equity. In Maryland, it is 25 percent. In the District, it is 50 percent. (In the District it is worth noting that the small sample size and the limited number of foreclosures skew that number higher.)

The company also looked at how many people are close to being out from underwater, or teetering between positive and negative equity. These are homeowners whose loan-to-value ratio was between 90 percent and 110 percent, or that they had between 10 percent positive equity and 10 percent negative equity in their homes.

In Virginia, that was 20 percent of all mortgages, or 196,942 mortgages. In Maryland, it was 19 percent or 263,259. In the District, it was 14 percent or 16,795. The U.S. average was 18 percent, or 8.3 million.

The District had the most homeowners who were comfortably out of danger of being upside down on their mortgages. Those homeowners who had at least 20 percent equity but less than 50 percent equity in their homes accounted for 40,656 of the mortgages in the District, or 33 percent. In Virginia, it was 271,216 or 28 percent. In Maryland, it was 309,842 or 22 percent.

Kathy Orton is a reporter and Web editor for the Real Estate section. She covers the Washington metropolitan area housing market.
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