More than a decade after the housing crisis, homeowners have been made whole — and then some. But the amount of mortgage debt that Americans owe still hasn’t returned to its previous, precrisis high. Those two numbers together say a lot — not all of it happy — about the state of our national housing market.
There are lots of reasons why home equity is up. Home prices have spent the past several years roaring higher, even if that pace of growth has recently started to moderate.
Home equity is also more concentrated. Americans are staying in their homes longer, in large part because the housing market has made it so challenging to move around. That means that they’re paying down more of their principal, if they have a mortgage.
Meanwhile, homeowners are still reluctant to take equity out of their homes.
It’s great that people who own homes have, for the most part, done well. (It’s important to remember that not everyone has: over a million are still underwater, and far more are barely above.)
But the still-tepid amounts of mortgage debt outstanding are a reminder of those who aren’t so lucky.
Mortgage debt started declining slowly and steadily in early 2008, and has barely ticked up since then. 2008, of course, marked the start of the worst of the subprime crisis, when owners started to lose their homes at a steep pace. As the long tail of the crisis has worked its way through the system over the past few years, more mortgage debt has been extinguished.
Meanwhile, the home loan market has been tight, and many would-be buyers have been locked out. And in a hot seller’s market, buyers who can afford to pay with cash, rather than slogging through the time-consuming mortgage application process, usually have an advantage. About 20% of house purchases have, relatively consistently, been paid by all-cash over the past few years, versus a rough long-term average of 10%, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Given all those considerations, surging levels of equity and stagnant amounts of debt seem to replicate the “have-have-not” bifurcation of the housing market that’s seen in the “not in my backyard” debate.
Far too often, would-be homeowners face steep barriers to entering the housing market above and beyond the steep costs, challenging paperwork, and slim pickings. Many communities enact what’s sometimes called “exclusionary zoning:” limiting the number, or the type, of new homes that can be built — only single-family homes, no apartment buildings, for example. Or it may mean setting rules for housing characteristics, such as minimum yard sizes or parking requirements.
Exclusionary zoning simply means that powerful people in a community try to make it harder for newcomers to enter. In some ways, the divergence of the two lines in the above chart show the market settling into a similar pattern: the haves have more, and the have-nots have trouble getting a foothold.
As a reminder, MarketWatch first investigated this idea two years ago, in this story, and the red and blue lines have grown farther apart since then.