Imagine everyone in Oakland dealing with a financial headache, one that can affect everything from their buying power to retirement plans?
That’s the far-reaching effect of negative equity in California.
Sure, the housing market has enjoyed a big-time boom—the median-home price is at the highest level in seven years—and many homeowners, especially those who bought in the past few years in the Bay Area and Southern California, are money ahead.
But hundreds of thousands of homeowners—about 402,000—are dealing with an underwater mortgage, where they owe more than the current value of their home, according to the latest Zillow report.
We want to put that in some kind of perspective. It’s the equivalent of everyone who crossed the Golden Gate Bridge during the past three days. Or each traveler who passed through Los Angeles International Airport during the past two days. Or every person who entered Disneyland during the past 10 days.
And if you’re dealing with an underwater mortgage, even the happiest place on earth can be difficult to enjoy. Just ask the one of every eight homeowners with a mortgage who is faced with negative equity in the Golden State.
Many of these homeowners bought at the peak of the housing market – between 2005 and 2008, depending on the region – with little or no down payment. Now, they are faced with an underwater mortgage.
In fact, California homeowners have a combined $59.5 billion in negative equity, or about $68,000 per homeowner. And the chance that many of them will dig out anytime soon is unlikely.
‘Continuing to make monthly payments on an underwater home is like renting’
Certainly, the situation continues to improve, especially as home prices rise. For example, fewer than 3% of homeowners with mortgages in San Francisco are underwater. And only 6.5% in Los Angeles County – though the county has the most underwater mortgages at 75,411, with a combined total of $14 billion in negative equity.
But drive two hours east of the Bay Area or two hours north of Los Angeles and the situation is much different. Madera and Kern counties are dealing with 16%-plus rates of underwater mortgages, respectively. Negative equity is a problem throughout much of inland California, with double-digit rates – and several counties top 19% (Lassen County has the highest rate in the state at 24.8%).
It could be a very long time before these homeowners escape negative equity—or get right-side-up, says Southern California mortgage consultant Greg Cook.
“Continuing to make monthly payments on an underwater home is like renting, but with the interest mortgage deduction,” he says. “And if one of those pesky ‘life events’ happen (such as a divorce or job loss) and they’re forced to sell, it’s either foreclosure or short sale, which puts subsequent homeownership out of the question for three to seven years.”
Now, if homeowners are making their mortgage payments on time and have no plans to sell, then negative equity is not much of a problem, says Than Merrill, a national real estate expert who founded CT Homes LLC and was a host of A&E’s Flip This House.
“Whenever you are confronted with a debt that exceeds the home’s value, otherwise known as negative equity, your financial position on the asset will take a hit,” Merrill says. “However, the fact that you are underwater may not impact your situation as you may have originally anticipated, especially if you have no intentions of moving anytime soon. As long as you are OK paying considerably more than the home is worth, and can afford to continue to do so, your finances should remain intact.”
As much as $100,000 available to help homeowners with underwater mortgages
For homeowners who aren’t OK paying considerably more and want to escape an underwater mortgage, Keep Your Home California is a possible solution. The free mortgage-assistance program’s Principal Reduction Program offers as much as $100,000 to low- and moderate-income homeowners dealing with underwater mortgages.
So far, more than 9,100 homeowners have been approved for the Principal Reduction Program, receiving about $548 million since February 2011. Many of those homeowners were dealing with an underwater mortgage.
The average homeowner has received $60,220 from the Principal Reduction Program since early 2011. For many homeowners, the program offers another benefit—lower monthly payments. The average homeowner approved for the Principal Reduction Program in the second quarter of 2016 saved almost $260 per month.
Now, homeowners must meet county-by-county income requirements and have experienced or continue to suffer from a financial hardship—such as a job loss, cut in pay, divorce to extraordinary medical expenses—to be eligible for Keep Your Home California. The homeowner’s mortgage service, the company that collects the monthly payment, must participate in the program. About 250 mortgage servicers, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, are enrolled in Keep Your Home California.
Homeowners interested in learning more or applying for the program should call the counseling center at 888-954-5337 or find more information at www.KeepYourHomeCalifornia.org or at www.ConservaTuCasaCalifornia.org for Spanish speakers. The counseling center is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Calls can be taken in virtually any language through a free translation service.