More American homeowners will be able to use their properties as cash machines again after real estate equity jumped last year by the most in 65 years.
Property owners recaptured $1.6 trillion as home values climbed to the highest levels since 2007. The amount by which the value of the houses exceeds their underlying mortgages rose to $8.2 trillion last year, a gain of 25 percent, according to Federal Reserve data.
An expanding group of homeowners is able to get cash from their properties as banks show more willingness to make home equity loans with the market’s recovery. Originations for the mortgages should rise 10 percent to almost $83 billion this year, from about $75 billion in 2012, said Shaun Richardson, a vice president at Icon Advisory Group, a mortgage analytics firm in Greensboro, North Carolina. About 6 percent of lenders eased equity-mortgage standards at the end of 2012, the most in 18 months, according to the Fed.
“Lenders are starting to come back into the marketplace,” said Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at Bankrate Inc. “We’re not going back to the wild, Wild West we saw during the real estate boom, but we are going to see more people spending their equity.”
Americans went on a spending spree in the five years before the 2006 peak of the real estate market, tapping about $800 billion of their rising equity to spend on everything from cars and televisions to debt consolidation and college tuition.
At the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, close to $1 trillion of the loans were outstanding at U.S. banks and credit unions, an all-time high, according to the Fed. In the housing crash that followed, banks wrote off, or declared worthless, about $251 billion of home equity loans, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The year-old real estate recovery is helping to ease defaults. The volume of equity loans 90 days or more overdue dropped 25 percent in the fourth quarter to $3.2 billion from the prior period, according to the FDIC. As a result, banks are beginning to view equity lending as a potential source of income, rather than losses, said Stuart Feldstein, president of SMR Research Corp., a consumer-lending research firm in Hackettstown, New Jersey.
“This could be the year banks see the home-equity business return to black ink, as long as defaults continue to decline,” Feldstein said.
Home-equity mortgages held by banks probably will yield a 0.2 percent return on assets this year, which is the after-tax income on outstanding loans, Feldstein said. Improvements in home prices and credit quality over the next two years should put profit back to the pre-bust level of 1 percent to 1.5 percent return on assets, he said.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Bank of America Corp. (BAC), Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) and Citigroup Inc. (C), the top four U.S. banks by assets, hold $319.6 billion of the loans, about half of the outstanding balance of $652.6 billion, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Bank of America has the most home-equity loans, at $102.6 billion.
Unlike first-lien mortgages, banks retain most of their equity originations on their books. Only about 2 percent are securitized on the secondary market, said Feldstein. There are two kinds of home-equity mortgages: lines of credit, known as Helocs, and closed-end loans borrowed in lump sums.
Helocs are adjustable loans tied to the prime rate, the interest charged by banks to their most creditworthy customers, with the addition of a margin pre-determined by the lender. The national average prime rate has been 3.25 percent since the end of 2008, as measured by Bloomberg.
The average rate for a Heloc last week was 5.11 percent, down from 5.22 percent a year ago, according to Bankrate.com, an interest-rate aggregator in North Palm Beach, Florida. That puts the average margin at close to 2 percent.
Closed-end loans, sometimes called He-loans, are usually fixed-rate junior mortgages or first liens used to refinances. The average U.S. rate for a closed-end loan was 6.13 percent last week, according to Bankrate. A year ago, the rate was 6.39 percent.
Lenders usually require borrowers to retain at least 20 percent equity, meaning the junior mortgages added to the primary loan can’t exceed 80 percent of a home’s value, Bankrate’s McBride said.
“You won’t be able to borrow on every last nickel of your equity,” McBride said. “After watching what happened to home prices during the housing downturn, lenders want a sufficient margin to protect them.”
About $6.5 trillion of residential real estate value evaporated after a wave of mortgage defaults sparked the 2008 financial crisis. The median U.S. home price hit bottom in 2012 after a 33 percent drop, as measured by the National Association of Realtors. In February, the median price was up 12 percent from a year earlier, the trade group said last week.
The S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values in 20 cities increased 8.1 percent in January from the same month in 2012 after rising 6.8 percent in the year ended in December, the group said today in New York. January’s gain was the most since June 2006, and exceeded the 7.9 percent median forecast by economists in a Bloomberg survey.
“Owners who have been sitting in their homes and watching their equity go up will be more likely to borrow and to spend, and more likely to take risks like looking for another house,” said Craig Focardi, senior research director at CEB TowerGroup. “Having home equity is a financial cushion to the average consumer’s personal balance sheet.”
A reviving real estate market added to gross domestic product last year for the first time since 2005, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis in Washington. The economy probably will grow at a 1.9 percent pace in 2013, the fourth year after the end of the recession, according to the median forecast of 83 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
Still, not everyone is spending. The amount households have in bank deposits, savings bonds, fixed-income mutual-funds and municipal securities increased $500 billion last year, equaling the most since 2007, according to FTN Financial, based on Fed data, while net household debt increased $10 billion, the least since 2005.
“You might qualify for a home equity loan, but still have concerns about the economy or job security,” said Icon Advisory’s Richardson. “Or, you might be in that large group of people who need prices to come back a lot more before they qualify.”
Fed policy makers for four years have driven down fixed home-loan rates by purchasing mortgage-backed bonds to stimulate demand. Last week, the central bank said it would continue to buy securities at a pace of $85 billion a month in their third round of so-called quantitative easing.
At the end of 2012, the average rate for a 30-year fixed primary mortgage fell to an all-time low of 3.3 percent, according to home-loan financier Freddie Mac in McLean, Virginia. Falling rates helped to boost home sales to 4.7 million last year, a gain of 8.4 percent from 2011.
“When we see some more history of home-price stability and improving employment data, there will be more people thinking about using their equity,” said Focardi, of CEB TowerGroup. “Having equity gives a boost to confidence.”
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