More Americans are becoming house-poor.
It's an ugly downside of the soaring real estate market: Many of those who put a toe in the housing water are finding themselves unable to afford more than the basic necessities, unless they try to survive with a credit-card lifestyle.
"Americans are in over their heads when it comes to debt," said A. Gary Shilling, an economist. "The value of real estate assets has zoomed, but people are borrowing more and more against their homes."
A brief layoff or other job interruption can be enough to push many young home buyers over the financial edge to insolvency.
Huge house payments are a direct reason for sky-high levels of bankruptcy and foreclosures. In some parts of the country, notably in California, the cost of housing can consume 60 percent of a household's budget.
For some people, the problem may not be housing prices, but spending habits. The availability of credit often exceeds their ability to use it wisely.
Chris Dill, a Chicago financial planner, said he counseled one couple with a combined income of less than $80,000 a year who had run up $160,000 in consumer debt, most of it on credit cards.
"It appeared that their only choices would be to declare bankruptcy or sell their home," said Dill, of McTigue Financial Group.
The couple sold the house and moved to an apartment, enabling them to pay off $100,000 in debts, he said. But within months, the credit-card cycle repeated; the couple once again was mired in debt and filed for bankruptcy.
Chicago resident Kelli Collins said she looked seriously at buying a house from her parents, but a combination of debts from college and credit cards caused her to give up on the idea.
"I graduated from Eastern Illinois University in 1993, and I still had unpaid debts, plus quite a few credit cards. I was thinking it would take me 15 years to pay off all of it," she said.
Collins, 36, who takes care of a 11/2-year-old nephew, said she obtained help from the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Chicago and was told to avoid a house purchase. She also was able to obtain a lower rate of interest on some of her credit cards.
"At this point it appears I will have everything paid off in two or three years," Collins said. "Until then, I won't consider buying a house."
But the odds are against even some financially responsible home buyers affording their dream home. Real estate costs are outstripping what families are earning, making homes increasingly less affordable.
Yet the boom in prices is unrelenting.
In this year's second quarter, average home prices nationwide rose by the highest percentage since 1979, and at a far faster clip than earlier this year, according to newly released federal statistics. U.S. home prices increased an average 9.36 percent from the second quarter of 2003 to the second quarter of 2004, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight said.
As prices rise, so do property taxes, although there may be a lag.
"Over the long haul, people have to be able to pay their mortgages," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland. "House prices can't exceed increases in incomes for very long."
In the four years ended June 30, median home prices rose 33 percent, while per-capita personal income climbed just 10.4 percent, he said.
Nationwide, mortgage delinquencies rose last quarter for the first time in a year. At the same time, foreclosures fell to the lowest level since 2000, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The share of homeowners who paid their mortgages a month or more late rose to a seasonally adjusted 4.43 percent, from 4.33 percent in the first quarter, according to the Washington-based trade group. The share of loans in foreclosure fell to 1.16 percent from 1.27 percent in the prior quarter.
Analysts said the foreclosure rate is held down by mortgage lenders who counsel borrowers on ways they can avoid losing their homes.
Economist Shilling said cash-out refinancings and home equity loans have reduced the percentage of equity held in a house by the typical owner.
To keep the housing market rolling, he said, the government is encouraging mortgage loans with no down payments. In many cases, people can buy a home with no money down even if they've filed for bankruptcy or gone through a previous foreclosure.
Critics say loose lending standards by the mortgage industry have contributed to high foreclosure rates nationwide.
They say that if owners have no equity in their homes it is easy to walk away from mortgages if they get into financial difficulty.
For Shilling, those trends point to a danger that "many pins may prick the housing bubble, even if interest rates don't rise. No trend lasts forever."