Homeowners in Battleground States Dogged By Underwater Mortgages

Battleground states have serious issues with negative equity--will it matter come election time?

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Battleground.JPG
Source: Zillow

Despite positive numbers out of the housing market this week, optimism about a brighter future for housing may have been tempered by a not-so-encouraging figure released Thursday: $1.2 trillion.

That's the collective amount owed by underwater homeowners above and beyond the value of their homes, according to real estate web site Zillow, a staggering figure and evidence of a phenomenon that touches nearly one-third of U.S. homeowners with mortgages.

While virtually every state has issues with negative equity—housing speak for owing more on your home loan than what your house is worth—some states have fared worse than others. And for better or worse, some of those states are swing states, which means politicians battling for the White House in coming months might have to answer to voters intimately affected by the scourge of foreclosure crisis and negative equity.

State
% of Homes with Negative Equity
% price decline from peak
% of underwater homeowners 90+ days delinquent
% of counties with 25+ percent of underwater homeowners
United States
31.4
-24.6
10.1
N/A
Florida
46.3
-52.8
20.5
Almost 90
Ohio
32.2
-19.1
7.6
65
New Hampshire
29.8
-24.3
5.3
40
Colorado
28.2
-10.7
6
More than 50
Wisconsin
26.6
-12.4
6.4
N/A
North Carolina
25.7
-12.8
8.2
34
Iowa
20.2
-53.6
4.8
Almost 30

Source: Zillow

Heading into a contentious presidential race, one has to wonder whether housing, which has largely been absent from the political stage thus far, will become more of a hot-button issue as the campaign makes its way on the circuit.

Even though Florida and Ohio are the only swing states that have negative equity levels above the national average, the financial stress associated with being underwater on a mortgage can still take its toll on homeowners.

"Having a state with negative equity, that presents a lot of pain to homeowners," says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. "There's been a lot of evidence that suggests that voters vote with their pocketbooks."

Humphries is quick to point out that although nearly one in three homeowners with a mortgage is under water, fully 90 percent of them are still current on their payments, and stresses that negative equity doesn't necessarily equate to foreclosures.

Instead, the threat of negative equity is mostly the potential it creates for heightened financial distress when other factors, such as job loss, occur.

"It creates dormant vulnerability in the housing stock," Humphries says. "If the household receives some economic shock of some type to its income stream, then the presence of negative equity is going to make it much more likely that house is going to go into foreclosure. It's a double trigger phenomenon."

Still, how much the issue plays in the upcoming election remains to be seen and largely depends on how voters view the housing crisis: through the rear-view mirror or looking ahead.

"If they vote retrospectively—meaning they look back at what's happened to their fortunes, then negative equity is going to be a big issue, especially in places like Florida where 46 percent of homeowners with mortgages are underwater," Humphries says.

Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.