When President Obama recently proposed a two-year Federal employee pay freeze, you could almost feel the real estate industry shudder.
That’s because jobs and real estate continue to be tethered together. If salaries are frozen, or if more Americans’ annual income doesn’t keep pace with inflation, it might make them nervous about their future job and income prospects.
And Realtors know that if you aren’t confident about your future job and income prospects, it’s unlikely you’ll want to purchase a home. (In a recent speech to the business community, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged that continued high unemployment is increasing economic uncertainty.)
The salary freeze prospect also has an impact on housing prices. When family incomes are flat, it’s very difficult for local home values to appreciate. That’s because lenders traditionally allowed borrowers to purchase homes that cost 2 to 2.5 times family income. In years where the 30-year mortgage interest rate fell to 6 percent or below and lenders were more flexible in what they were willing to do for borrowers, that lending ratio might be stretched to 3 or 3.5 percent of family income.
What happened during the housing boom is that lenders developed creative financing techniques which stretch tried-and-true lending ratios – to disastrous results. Home buyers who earned $50,000 per year bought $500,000 homes with nothing down.
In areas like Nevada, Arizona, South Florida and Southern California, where more home buyers stretched affordability with exotic loans, home prices have fallen faster and farther.
But as the unemployment rate remains near 10 percent (officially, and near 20 percent if you count those underemployed), it’s easy to connect areas that have high levels of unemployment with those that have high levels of mortgage delinquency and foreclosure.
“The most rapid increases in mortgage delinquency occurred in metro areas where home prices are much higher than local incomes can afford” observed Tom Kingsley, senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
According to Foreclosure-Response.org, a website that provides local and national foreclosure data, as well as information on policies aimed at preventing foreclosure and stabilizing neighborhoods, Florida and Las Vegas have seriously high mortgage delinquency rates already, and they’re rising.
Compare those states with North Dakota, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Just 1.8 percent of homeowners in the Bismark metro area are delinquent on their mortgages.
The biggest question is whether 2011 is the year where the lack of jobs coupled with forced furloughs and declining income will finally overcome whatever savings those families are using to pay their bills.
“Serious delinquency rates are also rising rapidly in metro areas within Colorado, Washington, and Utah where delinquency problems have been moderate so far,” noted Kingsley.
If you lose your job, you’ll use every available financial resource to avoid paying bills late and then to stay out of foreclosure and bankruptcy. But when those resources run out, many homeowners will run to bankruptcy court.
Bankruptcy filings are up 150 percent, as homeowners attempt to stave off foreclosure. The next wave could be the 2 million Americans who are classified as “long-term unemployed,” and whose last unemployment benefits check has just been mailed out.
Congress doesn’t look like it’s passing an extension of unemployment benefits before the winter holiday break. For many mortgage lenders, that political logjam could mean a rising tide of foreclosures all the way through the Spring home buying season.