The American Dream of Home Ownership Has Become a Nightmare

For the baby boomer generation, a home is no longer a cornerstone of advancement but a ball and chain.


Why has housing been such a core element in the story of American civilization?

Culturally a decent house has been a symbol of middle-class family life. Practically, it has been a secure shelter for the children, along with access to a good free education. Financially it has been regarded as a safe store of value, a shield against the vagaries of the economy, and a long-term retirement asset. Indeed, for decades, a house has been the largest asset on the balance sheet of the average American family. In recent years, it provided boatloads of money to homeowners through recourse to cash-out refinancing, in effect an equity withdrawal from their once rapidly appreciating home values.

These days the American dream of home ownership has turned into a nightmare for millions of families. They wake every day to the reality of a horrible decline in the value of the home that has meant so much to them. The pressure to meet mortgage payments on homes that have lost value has been especially shocking—and unjust—for the millions of unemployed through no fault of their own. For the baby boomer generation, a home is now seen not as the cornerstone of advancement but a ball and chain, restricting their ability and their mobility to move and seek out a job at another location. They just cannot afford to abandon the equity they have in their homes—and they can't sell in this miserable market.

American homeowners have experienced an unprecedented decline in their equity net of mortgage debt. The seemingly never-ending fall in prices has brought an average decline of at least 30 percent. Furthermore, the country is now going through an unprecedented nationwide slide in sales, despite the fact that long-term mortgage interest rates nationwide plummeted recently to a record low of 4.3 percent before rising slightly. The result is that home occupancy costs for home purchases are now down to roughly 15 percent of family income, dramatically lower than the conventional, affordable figure of 25 percent of family income devoted to home occupancy costs. Yet new home sales, pending home sales, and mortgage applications are down to a 13-year low.

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The economics of home ownership could hardly be more disastrously opposite to the expectations of generation after generation. Millions of homes have been foreclosed upon. About 11 million residential properties, or about 23 percent of such properties with mortgages, have mortgage balances that exceed the home's value. Given the total inventory, and the shadow inventory of empty homes, many experts expect prices to fall another 5 to 10 percent. That would bring the decline to 40 percent from peak-to-trough and expose an estimated 40 percent of homeowners to mortgages in excess of the value of their homes.

The growing risk of disappearing equity invites more strategic defaults on mortgages. Homeowners with negative equity are tempted simply to mail in their keys to their friendly lender even if they can afford the mortgage payment. Banks don't want to take the deflated properties onto their books because they will then have to declare a financial loss and still have to worry about maintaining the properties.

Little wonder foreclosure has not been enforced on a quarter of the people who haven't made a single mortgage payment in the last two years. A staggering 8 million home loans are in some state of delinquency, default, or foreclosure. Another 8 million homeowners are estimated to have mortgages representing 95 percent or more of the value of their homes, leaving them with 5 percent or less equity in their homes and thus vulnerable to further price declines. A huge percentage will never be able to catch up on their payment deficits.

The pace of foreclosures was briefly slowed by loan modifications brought on by government programs. Alas, the programs have not been working as hoped. Half of the borrowers have been redefaulting within 12 months, even after monthly payments were cut by as much as 50 percent. The foreclosure pipeline remains completely clogged. As it unclogs, a new wave of homes will come on the market and precipitate additional downward pressure on prices. The number of foreclosed homes put on the market by banks will be a more powerful influence on the further decline of home prices than either consumer demand or interest rates.