Home ownership and prices up, equity down

By John Cunniff The Associated Press
Tuesday June 26, 2001

NEW YORK — A fundamental change has occurred in the housing market over the past few years, and it is likely to play an increasing role in changing people’s lifestyles. 

It is already doing so. More Americans own their houses than ever before, thanks to low borrowing rates and variable mortgages to fit needs. Prices are rising. Unemployment is near postwar lows. Incomes are up. 

Most significantly, the market value of houses has outpaced inflation for the seventh straight year, rising 16 percent since 1993. As a national group, you might expect homeowners to be growing wealthier. 

They aren’t. 

Valuations are rising, but so is borrowing. Despite rising prices, equity has fallen sharply in the past decade, continuing a postwar decline only mildly interrupted during the 1970s and 1980s. 

Moreover, mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures are rising too, partly a result of the high level of borrowing, partly a consequence of buying with low down payments and resulting high monthly payments. 

The erosion of equity is one of the major issues in the latest “The State of the Nation’s Housing,” an annual analysis of the housing market by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. 

The situation reflects not just a change in affordability levels (more difficult) but a vast change in consumer behavior. To take out a second mortgage once indicated necessity. Today it is a lifestyle choice. 

In short, the house is a bank from which money can be borrowed at low rates to finance other purchases, including vacations, cars and electronic gadgetry as well as tuition, often with a tax deduction to boot. 

This is a momentous change from the past, when the house was viewed as a sanctuary not to be violated by financial risk-taking, and the goal of owners was to achieve security by reducing or paying off the mortgage. 

The changing attitude by today’s borrowers involves growing confidence in the ability to hold onto a job and maintain a certain level of income, but also perhaps the desire for the rewards of wealth now,  

not later. 

The change raises risks, not just to households but to the general economy. With equity falling as a percentage of price, the consequences of job loss and recessions grow proportionately. 

Still another consequence, especially in cases of low down payments and heavy borrowing, may be to maintain selling prices at artificially high levels, barring low-income earners from joining the market. 

There may be risks to the future as well. Despite the importance of Individual Retirement Accounts, 401(k) plans and defined benefit plans, home equity remains the primary retirement fund for millions of Americans. 

In the past, the housing market has been an economic stabilizer in many ways. You can even argue that its recent strength has been the major factor in averting or moderating recession tendencies in other industries. 

In terms of macroeconomics, there’s a question today about its ability to play the same role in the future. 

John Cunniff is a business analyst for The Associated Press