Studies now show that over 20% of the houses with mortgages in the country are underwater (where the loan amount exceeds the value of the property). Some bought their house at the top of the market and saw prices come tumbling down over the last few years. Losing this value has caused challenges for many in this category.
Other homeowners are underwater because they refinanced their homes at the height of the market and cashed out some of their equity. Some did this several times as values continued to rise and interest rates continued to fall. When prices dropped, they too found themselves in a negative equity situation. But not everyone in this category is in a worse position financially. Let’s break down this category.
Some Used Their House as an ATM
Some homeowners took cash out of their home to finance a lifestyle they desired. They bought a new car or a new boat. Some used the cash for fabulous vacations to locations they had always dreamed about. This group didn’t lose their equity. They spent it. Maybe these purchases were worth the price that these homeowners are now paying. Only the individual person can answer that question.
Some Used Their House to Finance an Education or Start a Business
It has long been a tradition in this country that people tap the equity in their home to finance their children’s college education or to gather together the start-up capital necessary to open their own business. These people didn’t lose their equity. They invested it in their children or their business. Was it worth it? For the couple who refinanced their home for their son or daughter’s eduction in 2007, a good time to ask may be next month as they are attending their children’s college graduation. For those who started a business with the money, whether it was a good idea was determined by their business plan not the housing market.
Some Used Their Home to Diversify Their Investment Portfolio
Some savvy homeowners, upon seeing their home values skyrocketing, decided to pull cash out and invest in other asset classes. At the height of the market (2006), some took $100,000 out of their home and invested in the stock market or in precious metals. Instead of sitting on their equity, they decided to put it to work for them. How did this group do? If they invested in the Dow, that $100,000 is now worth approximately $115,000. If they invested in gold, that $100,000 is now worth $290,000. (We never read about these people in the thousands of stories on the housing bubble. Good news just doesn’t seem to sell papers.)
In every challenge there is an opportunity. Perhaps the opportunity in housing today is to use some of the equity in other assets we currently own to purchase real estate while it is low and mortgage money remains cheap. The Wall Street Journal and Forbes Magazine both suggested this exact strategy to their readers in the last three months.