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Some homeowners still can’t sell because they owe more on the homes than they’re worth

Home prices and housing demand are both soaring, and real estate agents are desperate to find more homes to list. Sounds like a dream for any homeowner who wants to sell. Unfortunately, close to 3 million can’t — not unless they want to pay money to do it.

Nearly a decade into the housing recovery, 5.4 percent of all mortgage properties are in a negative-equity position, that is, the owners owe more on the mortgage than the home is currently worth, according to CoreLogic. That is a vast improvement from just a year ago, when 7.1 percent of mortgaged properties were in a negative-equity position.

Since the epic crash in home prices, which bottomed in 2009, homeowners have seen somewhat steady gains in equity, but solid gains since 2013. In the past year, homeowners gained $766 billion collectively in equity, which just magnifies the severity of the crisis.

In the last quarter of 2009, more than one-quarter of all homes with a mortgage were in a negative-equity position, or upside down on their loans. Nationally, homeowners in aggregate still have to make up $284 billion to break even.

“Homeowner equity reached $8 trillion in the second quarter of 2017, which is more than double the level just five years ago,” said Frank Martell, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “The rapid rise in homeowner equity not only reduces mortgage risk but also supports consumer spending and economic growth.”

Rising equity also helps those who are in a “near-negative equity” position, meaning they have some equity in their homes but not enough to cover the cost of buying new homes, or even the cost of moving to rental homes. Close to 710,000 properties have less than 5 percent equity.

Negative equity is one of the main reasons why there are so few homes for sale. Housing inventory dropped again in August, down over 6 percent compared with a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors.

“Given the strength of the job market, favorable demographics and rock-bottom mortgage interest rates that make buying a home very affordable, the existing home sales market should be roaring instead of whimpering,” Svenja Gudell, Zillow’s chief economist, wrote in reaction to the weak August home sales report from the Realtors. “All those factors that should be acting as tailwinds may all be present, but they’re being overwhelmed by the simple fact that there are just very few homes actually available to buy.”

Gudell notes that half of the available supply of homes for sale is in the highest third of the market, which is not where demand is strongest.

The negative-equity situation, like everything else in real estate, differs depending on the local market. Markets with the highest share of negative equity on mortgage properties are Miami (14.7 percent), Las Vegas (12.2 percent), Chicago (10.8 percent) and the Washington, D.C., metro area (7.2 percent).

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