How to Break Even on an Underwater Home

The good news: About 30% of homeowners with single-family homes carry no mortgage at all, according to the Census Bureau.

Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of people with a lot of debt, and First American CoreLogic, the mortgage-data firm, estimates that 24% of mortgage holders owe more than their homes are worth. That’s more than 11 million homeowners, with mortgage debt exceeding home value by an average of 34%.

In some regions, it could take six or seven years for those homeowners to get their heads above water, First American figures.

But if you’re underwater, don’t get hung up on the national figures, try to come up with ones for your own property. The situation might not be as bad as you think.

The first step is to use a site like Zillow.com to estimate your home’s value. Type in your address and you’ll get a “zestimate” of its current value. Click the “Details” button to see a list of nearby homes that have sold recently. These are called “comparables,” and are used to figure an average price per square foot that is then applied to your property.

The comparables are worth some close study to see if they really are relevant to your home. Sales prices from more than six or eight months ago might be too out of date, failing to reflect further price declines in some areas or missing rebounds in others.

Your lender can tell you exactly how much you still owe on your mortgage. The Dec. 31 figure will be in the year-end statement that came in January. If you owe $200,000 and the home is worth $150,000, you owe 33% more than your home is worth — $50,000 / $150,000. Two factors determine how long it will take to break even.

First, if the market returns to normal, the home’s value will gradually grow. Appreciation rates vary wildly depending on what part of the country you are in and what period you are talking about. Nationally, home-price appreciation has averaged about 4% for the long term.

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