US housing negative equity rates falling, latest data shows

The housing market negative equity rate in the United States is falling but more than half of underwater home owners are nowhere near resurfacing, the latest research shows.

More than 4 million US home owners owed the bank at least 20% more than their properties were worth in the first quarter of 2015, according to the report from real estate firm Zillow.

That means those homes would have to appreciate at least 20% for their owners to have any chance of breaking even on a sale. While home values are forecast to continue rising, they are expected to do so at a slower pace than recent years.

Overall the national negative equity rate dropped to 15.4% in the first quarter, down from 18.8% in the first quarter of 2015.

The data also shows that the rate of negative equity improved in all of the 35 largest housing markets in the first quarter of 2015, a sign that, metro by metro and home by home, the country is continuing to recover from the lax lending rules and subsequent housing market bust of the last decade.

At the peak of the real estate crisis, more than 15 million home owners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, putting them in negative equity. Foreclosures, short sales and rapidly rising home values freed nearly half of those home owners, leaving 7.9 million home owners upside down at the end of the first quarter of 2015. Home owners who remain underwater will likely be the toughest to free from negative equity, the report points out.

It also explains that while spring and summer are the busiest buying and selling seasons and this year there is high demand for homes in the bottom third of the market, a disproportionate number of those home owners are simply stuck in their homes and can't afford to sell to buyers looking for homes in their price range.

The rate of underwater home owners was much higher among the homes with the least value. More than 25% of those who own the least valuable third of homes were upside down, compared to about 8% of the most valuable third of homes.

The imbalance was even more pronounced in some markets. In Atlanta, for example, 46% of low end home owners were underwater, compared with 10% of high end home owners. And in Baltimore 32% of low end home owners were in negative equity compared to 9% of those who own the highest value homes.

‘It's great news that the level of negative equity is falling, but what really worries me is the depth of negative equity. Millions of Americans are so far underwater, it's likely they may not re-gain equity for up to a decade or more at these rates,’ said Zillow chief economist Stan Humphries.

‘And because negative equity is concentrated so heavily at the lower end, it throws a real wrench in the traditional housing market conveyor belt. Potential first time buyers have difficulty finding affordable homes for sale because those homes are stuck in negative equity,’ he explained.

‘And owners of those homes can't move up the chain because they're stuck underwater in the entry level home they bought years ago. The log jam at the bottom is having ripple effects throughout the market, and as home value growth slows, it will be years before it gets cleared up. In the meantime, we'll be left with volatile prices, limited inventory, tepid demand, elevated foreclosures and a whole lot of frustration,’ he added.

Among the 35 largest housing markets, Las Vegas, Chicago and Atlanta had the highest rates of home owners in negative equity. A smaller share of home owners were upside down in Miami and Detroit, but home owners there were more deeply underwater. In both places, over 60% of home owners in negative equity were more than 20% underwater.