When you ask 29-year-old Anthony Walker about the home he owns, his response is a chorus of resigned sighs. It’s not quite the reaction you’d expect from one of the few in his generation who has managed to achieve homeowner status. But the property Walker co-owns with a good friend and former roommate is deeply underwater. That means that since he purchased the property, the value has slipped so much that the house is worth less than total mortgage debt taken out to buy it. As time passes, he’s growing increasingly doubtful that he’ll ever see the property value back in the black.
It’s a predicament that more and more owners of less expensive starter properties are facing. Homes that were bought for a “reasonable” price at the top of the market are now floundering in negative equity and according to Svenja Gudell, the director of economic research at the real-estate data firm Zillow, there’s a good chance that such properties will never be worth the mortgage debt owed on them. “In the lowest third of the housing market, not only are you more likely to be underwater, but homeowners tend to be very deeply underwater,” says Gudell. “It will take a really long time to lift some of those homeowners out of negative equity. And some of them will never reach positive equity.”
Walker bought his home in 2007. The two-bedroom, two-bath condo is in a renovated building in East Orange, New Jersey, which borders Newark. Though the neighborhood isn’t the most polished, Walker says that they were already constrained by price because they were close to New York City, which is less than 20 miles away. “The budget restrictions forced us into neighborhoods that were probably fringe, transition-zone neighborhoods at best,” Walker says. “There were several new townhouse communities, condos, or residential buildings that were going up within a mile radius of where we were looking to buy. So in some respects we thought that the neighborhood was transitioning to be more like neighboring West Orange and Orange than Newark.”
Walker, like most Americans in 2007, figured he was making a sound investment in real estate that would surely appreciate during his lifetime. Even if he chose to move, he thought, his condo might provide some financial benefit down the line