Your stocks or mutual funds may--or may not--have gained much in value this year. But unless you live in one of a handful of places around the country, you can be certain of this: Your home racked up solid appreciation gains in the last 12 months--5.3 percent on average nationwide, and 8 percent to 9 percent in the hottest statewide markets, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado, plus Washington, D.C.
And unlike your stock market profits, there's an extra layer of icing on top of your home's appreciation: It's tax-free, and it can be readily converted to cash if you need it--which is what growing numbers of American consumers are doing.
Two new national statistical studies highlight the continuing, impressive jumps underway in home values, and how owners are turning at least some of that appreciated equity into spendable dollars.
The first study, prepared by a federal agency that monitors the housing economy, documents what gleeful homeowners and sellers suspected: Inflation in most goods and services may be in the range of 1 percent to 2 percent a year, but home values are jumping at four to five times that pace. According to the latest data from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, even three of the four slowest-appreciating markets--Nevada, Pennsylvania and Idaho, with gains in resale value of 3 percent or less--are beating inflation in the overall economy. (Hawaii posted a scant 0.1 percent appreciation rate during the last 12 months.)
Massachusetts continues to lead the nation's resale-value boom, with a 9.3 percent average rate of gain per house in the last year, and nearly a 30 percent increase over the last five years. That's especially impressive given Massachusetts' already high-cost housing stock. If you bought a $300,000 house outside Boston last year, it's probably worth about $327,000 today. If you bought it in 1994, it's probably worth about $386,000. Other relatively pricey home real estate areas are not far behind.
Here are some highlights of the new study:
* After a slow start earlier this decade, Washington, D.C., is now the second-fastest-appreciating market in the country, with an 8.3 percent rate of gain in the past year.
* Minnesota (8.1 percent), Colorado (8 percent) and California (7.7 percent) are also near the top of the pack. Colorado and Minnesota are among the hottest appreciation markets of the last five years, with aggregate jumps of 37.4 percent and 31.1 percent, respectively.
* Fifteen other states racked up appreciation rates of 5 percent or higher during the last 12 months, including Georgia (6.9 percent), Michigan (6.5 percent), Washington (6.1 percent), Maine (6 percent), South Carolina (5.9 percent), Kansas (5.7 percent), New York (5.5 percent), Nebraska (5.4 percent), Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio (5.3 percent), Mississippi and Connecticut (5.1 percent) and Montana and Texas (5 percent).
* Even the middle- and lower-performing markets turned in resale-gain rates well ahead of inflation in the larger economy: Arizona (4.9 percent), Kentucky (4.7 percent), Alaska and North Carolina (4.6 percent), Iowa (4.5 percent), Indiana (4.2 percent), Tennessee (4.1 percent), Illinois (4 percent), Rhode Island (4.9 percent), Florida and Virginia (3.7 percent), Oklahoma (3.6 percent) and Maryland (3.2 percent).
* A few markets that had been hot spots earlier in the decade have begun to cool markedly. For example, Oregon home prices increased 3.6 percent last year, but rose an aggregate 37.2 percent from 1994 to the present. Utah, with the highest five-year appreciation rate in the country at 41.5 percent, registered an average gain of 3.3 percent last year.
So what are the owners of all these high-inflation homes around the country doing with their equity gains? According to a new study by mortgage market giant Freddie Mac, many of them are cashing out a portion of their profits tax-free in the form of cash. Freddie Mac's latest survey found that 57 percent of all refinancers are tapping their equity by increasing their loan amounts, known as cash-out refis. There's no tax due on whatever you pull out to spend.
For example: You're the lucky owner of that $300,000 house bought near Boston in 1994 that's now worth about $386,000. You need money for your child's college tuition, or you need money to invest, buy a boat or a new car or whatever. You convert your equity into spendable dollars either by increasing your principal balance via a cash-out refi--say from $275,000 up to $325,000--or by taking out a home equity loan or credit line in the same amount.
It's your equity, you need it, so why not--as long as you can handle the higher payments and you don't leave yourself too thin an equity stake in your home. After all, you don't want to assume that the super-appreciation party of the 1990s is going to continue indefinitely. Because it won't.