With all the depressing reports about the “fiscal cliff” and potential rollbacks in tax benefits for homeowners, you might have missed some of the positive trends under way for real estate.
Start with homeowners’ equity. It’s growing again significantly, following five years of declines and stagnation. This is a huge piece of good news that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. After hitting a low of $6.45 trillion in the final three months of 2011, Americans’ combined home equity jumped nearly $1.3 trillion during the next nine months to $7.71 trillion – a 20 percent gain – according to the “flow of funds” quarterly estimate released in December by the Federal Reserve.
A homeowner’s equity is the difference between the market value of his or her house and the amount of mortgage debt it is carrying. If your real estate would sell for $400,000 and you have a mortgage balance of $200,000, your equity is $200,000.
Equity is a key measure of wealth – often the largest single item on a family’s financial balance sheet – and the Federal Reserve tracks the estimated equity holdings of millions of owners to come up with its quarterly numbers. As recently as 2007, homeowners’ collective equity exceeded $10.2 trillion. Between that year and late 2011, owners lost nearly $4 trillion in real estate wealth.
So the $1.3 trillion turnaround during the first nine months of 2012 was a big deal. It reflected the first sustained rebound in home prices in a long time in many – though not all – local real estate markets. In a study released just before Christmas, researchers at Zillow.com found that of 177 major metropolitan markets, 135 had experienced net increases in cumulative home values during 2012.
Zillow broke it down into specific dollar amounts added to owners’ net worth, city by city: Owners in Los Angeles gained a cumulative $122.1 billion during the year, Washington, D.C., owners $40.4 billion, San Diego $31.2 billion, Seattle $20.1 billion, Boston just under $16 billion, Tampa, Fla., $8 billion, Sarasota, Fla., $5 billion, Tucson, Ariz., $3.8 billion, Oklahoma City $3.3 billion, and Columbus, Ohio, $3.5 billion.
These are big numbers and hard to grasp, but think of it this way: The odds are good that even if you own in a market that experienced severe price declines during the housing bust, the value of your house rose last year, at least modestly. Even if you have negative equity, it’s likely that, thanks to appreciation in your area and your continuing payment of principal on your mortgage, your equity position improved.