Americans Have Lost $6.5 Trillion Since The Housing Bubble Burst

The $6.5 trillion lost in the bursting of the housing bubble is not a “paper loss,” it is tragically real.

Is anyone surprised that housing continues to slide? According to this report, Home Market Takes a Tumble: Turnaround More Distant After 3% Drop, Steepest Quarterly Decline Since 2008, housing has declined in value for 57 straight months, almost 5 years.

Since the housing bubble topped in most areas in 2006, and it’s now 2011, that makes sense: 2006 + 5 = 2011.

American homeowners have lost $6.5 trillion in equity in those 57 months. Here is the data from the Fed Flow of Funds household balance sheet:

Homeowner’s equity:
2006: $12.8 trillion
2011: $6.3 trillion

Net decline: $6.5 trillion

That is a big number, and the analysis I presented in The Housing Bubble Broke the Middle Class (April 27, 2011) suggested that this $6.5 trillion was roughly half of the middle class’s total net assets.

It’s difficult to grasp such large numbers, so let’s look at some actual houses. The sales price of houses is public record, and more or less at random, here is a selection of recent home sales here in Northern California. I purposefully selected sales from a spectrum of neighborhoods ranging from working-class to very desirable, exclusive suburbs (the price will telegraph the property’s desirability).

The key point here is that these catastrophic losses are taken by someone: either the homeowner, the lender, or the taxpayer. The gains were paper, but the losses are real. That is the ongoing tragedy of the housing bubble.

1. Recent sale: $820,000
Last sold 2007: $1.172 million
Nominal loss: $355,000
(does not include transaction costs or losses due to inflation)

Even if the owner put down 30%, their equity was wiped out.

2. Recent sale: $110,000
Last sold 2005: $370,000
Nominal loss: $260,000

3. Recent sale: $160,000
Last sold 2004: $455,000
Nominal loss: $295,000

4 Recent sale: $175,000
Last sold 1999: $205,000
Nominal loss: $30,000

Nationally, prices have round-tripped to 2003, but that masks the reality that in many locales, prices have returned to 1998 or even lower.

This is a home in a very desirable suburb:

5. Recent sale: $650,000
Last sold 2005: $1.25 million
Nominal loss: $600,000

If you add up the losses from just these four homes purchased in the bubble era, the loss exceeds $1.5 million. That is a staggering loss from only four homes. Now multiple that by hundreds of thousands of homes.

Here are two homes in less desirable (“rough”) neighborhoods:

6. Recent sale: $85,000
Last sold 2004: $295,000
Nominal loss: $210,000

7. Recent sale: $135,000
Last sold 2005: $419,000
Nominal loss: $284,000

Sadly, the subprime mortgage fraud enabled the “dream” of effortless profits from owning and churning real estate to filter down to even marginal areas. The bubble put real estate out of reach of qualified moderate-income buyers, and yet it was touted as a wonderful “innovation.” It was certainly wonderful for Wall Street and those who originated the embezzlement-special mortgages, but less so for the taxpayers who were handed the bill to save the “too big to fail” banks and investment banks.

8. Recent sale: $255,000
Last sold 1996: $189,500
Nominal gain: $65,500 

This is interesting because it offers an example of the pernicious effects of even “low” inflation. As we are constantly reminded, the U.S. has been in a “low inflation” environment for decades. This is of course a key part of the propaganda campaign to mask the severe erosion in wages’ purchasing power.

On the face of it, the home seller pocketed a hefty profit of $65,500. But let’s factor in commission and inflation. The transaction costs (commission, closing, transfer fees, etc.) are typically around 7%, so the actual net capital gains would be around $47,500, not $65,500.

According to the BLS inflation calculator, which likely underestimates “real” inflation, it now takes $270,000 to buy what $190,000 bought in 1996.

So the owner actually lost purchasing power in owning this house for 15 years.Minus commission and closing costs, the proceeds were around $237,000, which is about $33,000 less than the inflation-adjusted break-even point of $270,000.

Yes, there is the mortgage deduction and tax breaks to factor in, but considered strictly as an investment, the nominal and real gains in real estate still matter.

Put another way: a house purchased in 1996 for $100,000 has to be worth $142,000 today just to keep up with inflation. Factoring in transactions costs, then the house would have to be sold for roughly $152,000 for the owner to extract $142,000–the sum needed to simply maintain purchasing power.

In other words, a house that rose 50% over the past 15 years has simply kept pace with inflation. The nominal “gain” is utterly illusory.

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