Fannie Economists Project 1.8M Borrowers Could Regain Equity in 2013

The broadening housing recovery has firmed up home prices around the country, with the potential to restore many underwater mortgages to a position of positive equity, according to Fannie Mae’s Economic and Strategic Research (ESR) group.

Citing data from CoreLogic, Orawin Velz, Fannie Mae’s director of economic and strategic research, notes that 1.7 million properties moved from negative to positive equity last year. Provided the home price gains seen so far this year continue, Velz anticipates another 1.8 million properties will rise out of their underwater positions by the end of 2013.

In a new commentary piece entitled “Down But Not Out: Many Underwater Borrowers Will Likely Regain Buoyancy This Year,” Velz examines the extent to which home price appreciation can lift underwater properties into positive equity positions and the anticipated recovery time for transitioning the nation’s housing markets toward “normal” activity.

“The first annual rise in home prices on a national basis in six years has contributed to a positive feedback loop for the housing market by helping many underwater homeowners … regain their positive equity positions,” Velz said. “This improving trend should help spur mobility and housing turnover….The broader economy also should benefit.”

Main measures of home prices showed continued robust gains through the first part of 2013, thanks to an improving labor market, low mortgage rates, and very lean inventory—which Velz contends has been the principal driver of price gains so far.

She says rising home prices should help some homeowners who have involuntarily remained on the sidelines to put their homes on the market. According to CoreLogic’s data, the number of underwater residential properties peaked in the fourth quarter of 2011 at 12.1 million and declined in each quarter of 2012, with 10.4 million properties remaining in negative equity by year-end.

About 3.7 percent of those—or 1.8 million—were in a slightly negative position, which Velz defined as those with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios of 100 to less than 105 percent. She says these properties may switch to positive equity positions this year assuming home prices continue their upward trend. Based on CoreLogic’s latest negative equity report, the share of properties with a slightly negative equity position varied across the country, ranging from 1.3 percent in North Dakota to 5.4 percent in Georgia.

Velz concludes that all but about 10 percent of properties currently underwater will be back in positive territory within three and a half years. Most analysts expect home prices to trend up this year. Zillow polled more than 100 economists, housing analysts, and other industry experts in March. The consensus for median appreciation in 2013 was 4.8 percent, with only two respondents out of 117 indicating a decline.

Applying the Zillow survey’s consensus expectation for home prices—a cumulative gain of 17.5 percent between 2013 and 2016—and assuming continued amortization, Velz says most of the underwater properties at the end of 2012 would likely regain their positive equity positions by 2016—all except the most severely underwater, meaning those with LTVs of 120 percent or higher.

Underwater properties remain concentrated in a few states with those in the worst five states—Nevada, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan—accounting for nearly a third of total underwater properties, according to CoreLogic’s assessment. Velz stresses the speed of the transition of underwater loans to positive equity positions is expected to vary regionally.

Nevada and Arizona are among the states with the highest share of negative equity properties, yet these states witnessed very robust home price gains over the past year, Velz points out. On the other hand, Michigan’s negative equity share is the lowest among the five worst states, but its home price appreciation has been the most modest.

Fannie Mae’s economic and research director also noted strong home price appreciation bodes well for California, which was consistently among the five worst underwater states until the second quarter of 2011. Since then, California has moved out of the worst five states, as its home prices troughed in the first quarter of 2011—much sooner than trends have demonstrated in other severely underwater states and much earlier than national prices, which didn’t witness a trough until 2012.

According to Velz, that rate at which underwater borrowers are elevated above the break-even surface will depend on the severity of their underwater conditions—or their LTV ratios—and the pace of home price gains in specific markets.

Carrie Bay