Just 49 percent of homeowners in America now believe their home is worth more than they paid for it.
Rasmussen Reports has asked that question for years, and it has never before fallen below the 50 percent mark. This represents a sea change in personal finances that challenges core assumptions about the way our economy works.
Most Americans were brought up to believe the cornerstone of good financial planning was to buy a home, pay the mortgage on time and watch the equity grow. That doesn't work at a time when home values are declining.
Economists measure the lost equity in housing to be in the trillions of dollars. But the impact on individual families is even greater. Consider this: Four years ago, 80 percent of homeowners thought their home was worth more than they paid for it. That number fell to 62 percent last fall and 49 percent today.
In just four years, roughly one out of three homeowners went from having made money with a supposedly safe investment to seeing all the gains disappear. That's a stunning turnaround for people who thought they were doing the right thing and buying their share of the American Dream.
Adding to the sense of gloom, homeowners don't think we've hit bottom yet. Just 21 percent believe that their home will go up in value this year, while 25 percent expect further declines.
Even looking ahead five years, only 46 percent believe their home will go up in value. Such a low number would have been unthinkable until recently, and it's one reason many homeowners feel trapped.
The housing crisis was triggered by a soft economy, and most Americans recognize that it won't be solved until the overall economy regains strength. They're not looking for a quick fix with some magical new housing policy. Instead, they have serious concerns about jobs, inflation, federal spending and deficits that cloud prospects for a robust recovery.
But while the soft economy was the trigger, most homeowners recognize that the underlying cause of the housing crisis was a corrupt relationship between the federal government, elected politicians and well-connected financiers. While the housing market was collapsing, the financiers were getting bailed out.
Seventy-seven percent have an unfavorable opinion of Freddie Mac, and 73 percent say the same about Fannie Mae. Those two government-sponsored enterprises changed the rules of the mortgage game. One "innovation" was to encourage policies that let people buy a home with no money down. Most Americans reject that type of new math.
Fannie and Freddie, encouraged by politicians from both parties, sought to make homeownership available to everyone. But only 26 percent of Americans believe that should be the guiding principal of federal housing policy. Sixty-three percent think the primary goal in issuing a housing loan should be whether the homeowner can repay it.
By ignoring generations of experience and the common-sense wisdom of the American people, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac broke the housing market. Even more, they turned the American Dream for millions into a financial nightmare. Adding insult to injury, Fannie and Freddie stuck taxpayers with a bailout bill currently estimated at more than $300 billion — with no end in sight.