You've probably seen the dire news reports: American homeowners are becoming debt junkies, piling up record mortgage amounts, credit card bills, home-equity credit lines. They are putting down less when they buy and borrowing a lot more.
Families in high-cost real estate markets are stretching their household budgets to the breaking point to buy even a modest home. Some families are devoting 40 percent to 50 percent of their monthly income just to hang on to their high-priced houses.
With interest rates almost certain to rise from 40-year lows, debt pressures on borrowers can only get worse, pushing some families to the brink.
Given all that gloom and doom, you would think that homeowners' financial challenges would be visible in their payment performances on their mortgages. With such household debts, you would think that growing numbers of borrowers might be falling behind, paying their mortgage lenders late and maybe even sliding toward foreclosure.
But the reverse is true: Late payments on home mortgages were actually lower in mid-2005 than they were at the same time the year before -- 4.3 percent of all homeowners were at least slightly behind on their payments this year vs. 4.6 percent last year. Foreclosure rates are low and continue to fall. In mid-2005, 1 percent of all outstanding mortgages were in foreclosure, compared with 1.2 percent in mid-2004.
These figures come from the latest quarterly survey of nearly 40 million home loans (in 50 states plus the District and Puerto Rico) by the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. The second-quarter 2005 study also documents American homeowners' significant differences, based on where they live, in propensities to fall behind on their mortgages.
You might assume, for example, that homeowners in the states with the highest prices, lowest affordability and wildest appreciation rates would show the highest incidences of late payments. But that's not so. The states with the lowest home-mortgage delinquency rates also happen to have some of the highest median home costs and fizziest appreciation rates.
The lowest late-payment rate in the country: Hawaii, where home prices are stratospheric and the average appreciation rate from mid-2004 to mid-2005 was 25.9 percent, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, third highest in the country. Yet only 0.9 percent of outstanding home loans in Hawaii are even slightly in arrears. Remember that the nationwide average, by comparison, was 4.3 percent.
The next-lowest late-payment rate was in California (1 percent), followed by Virginia (1.3 percent). Everybody knows about California home costs and affordability problems. Plus, its 25.2 percent average appreciation rate last year ranked it fourth in the country. Virginia real estate is less expensive than in California and Hawaii but still well above the national average. And its 20.9 percent appreciation rate last year ranked it the eighth-fastest-inflating state.
The highest rates of late payments, by contrast, turn out to be in states with relatively low housing costs, below-average appreciation rates and slow economic growth. Mississippi homeowners had the highest delinquency rate at mid-year (8.5 percent), followed by Louisiana (6.7 percent), Indiana (6.7 percent), Tennessee (6.3 percent), Texas (6.3 percent) and Ohio (6.1 percent). All of these states have moderate- to below-average housing costs and ranked among the slowest-appreciating markets in the country last year, according to federal statistical data.
Delinquency rates among the Gulf Coast states hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina are certain to rise even higher, offset by only the forbearance programs announced by dozens of major lenders that will permit homeowners to miss two or three monthly payments without penalty.
Where are foreclosure rates the highest? Nationwide, the rate was 1 percent at mid-year. But several states are experiencing foreclosures at two to three times that rate. Ohio had the highest incidence -- 3.3 percent of all loans outstanding were in or beginning the foreclosure process. Next were Indiana (2.8 percent), Kentucky (1.9 percent) and Mississippi (1.7 percent).
The lowest rates of foreclosure in the country? You guessed it. Just 0.17 percent of California home-loan borrowers faced that financial nightmare as of midyear, followed by Hawaii (0.23 percent), Virginia (0.29 percent), Arizona (0.35 percent) and New Hampshire and Vermont (both 0.36 percent).
Foreclosure rates in general are lower in 2005 than they have been in previous decades in part because Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Administration and most major lenders all now use sophisticated "loss mitigation" techniques to keep even the most seriously delinquent borrowers in their homes. The techniques include restructuring loan terms, deferring late balances to the end of the loan and sometimes even lowering interest rates.
Loss mitigation doesn't save all troubled homeowners -- witness the 1 percent national foreclosure rate -- but it's a lifeline for most.
Kenneth R. Harney's e-mail address is KenHarney@earthlink.net.