WASHINGTON One in seven mortgage holders worry they may soon fail to make their monthly payments and even more fret that their home's value is shrinking, according to a poll showing widespread stress from the nation's housing crisis.
In an ominous snapshot of how the sagging real estate market and sour economy are intersecting, the Associated Press-AOL Money & Finance poll also found that 60 percent said they definitely won't buy a home in the next two years.
That was up from 53 percent who said so in an AP-AOL poll in September 2006. Only 11 percent are certain or very likely to buy soon, down from 15 percent two years ago.
In today's economic climate, even holding onto what they already have is a challenge and source of distress for significant numbers of homeowners. Nearly three in 10 said they are concerned their home's value will decline over the next two years, while 14 percent of mortgage holders expressed worry that they might miss payments in the next six months.
One nervous homeowner is Daniel Gallego, a warehouse worker in Stockton, Calif., who said in a follow-up interview that he may have to sell his house at a big loss.
"We may have to move in with my wife's parents or my parents," said Gallego, 30, who has two young children. "I could pay off some debt, then we could rent, and maybe buy another house in a few years."
He said the rising cost of gasoline and other expenses have made his adjustable rate mortgage unaffordable. Because he doesn't expect his home's value to recover soon, he said he may be better off moving now before his rates rise.
One in 10 have adjustable rate mortgages, half the number who said so two years ago. These mortgages generally start at a low interest rate and are later adjusted to market conditions which has often meant steep, unaffordable boosts that have forced many to refinance or even lose their homes.
The growing reluctance to dip into the housing market seems to stem partly from worry that housing prices will continue falling good if you're buying a house but bad if you have to sell one.
The number envisioning falling prices in their area has grown to one in four, while four in 10 think prices will rise, a decrease from two years ago. Expectations for rising prices are highest in the South, with Westerners likeliest to predict they will drop.
"This is a great time to buy, but not necessarily to sell," said Robert Jackson, who lives in a two-bedroom house in Ferguson, Mo., with his wife and four young children. He said he would love to purchase a larger home, but can't because even if he found a buyer, he would probably lose thousands on his house, which he bought less than two years ago.
"We're just going to have to slap a Band-Aid on it and stay here until the market gets a little bit better," said Jackson, 30.
Underscoring the public's unsettled feelings, the number saying local housing prices are about right has fallen to 35 percent. Half say homes are overpriced especially in the Northeast while those saying housing is underpriced have doubled to one in 10. Midwesterners were more likely than those in other regions to feel this way.
Some areas of the country buck regional trends. Laurie Jensen, a single mother of three, struggles to make payments on her home in Whitehall, Mont., by working as a seasonal road construction flagger and at times collecting unemployment. She said she'd like to move outside of town, but the area is popular and prices have surged.
"Things are pretty crazy," she said. "Places I don't consider that great are really expensive."
The public anxiety is in reaction to an economy that is veering toward recession and losing jobs even as the housing market sputters badly. Foreclosures have soared to record highs, mortgage rates have increased, sales of existing and new homes have fallen and home values have dropped.
Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics for Moody's Economy.com, a consulting firm, estimated that 9 million homeowners owe more on their home than its worth. He said his company believes home sales are at or near bottom and home values will continue to fall until early next year.
Even so, he said, many people bought their homes before the run-up in values that started around 2001 and remain in good shape.
"So the value of your house goes down temporarily," he said. Unless the homeowner must sell now or can't afford the payments, "that doesn't have that much of an impact."
The poll also found:
• The biggest worriers are those expecting to buy soon. Of that group 43 percent frets that their home's value will drop in the next two years, compared with 25 percent of those not expecting to buy soon.
• Fifty-nine percent think now is a good time to buy.
• Half think this is a very tough time for first-time buyers, an increase from two years ago. Nearly two-thirds think it's harder for first-home buyers than it was five years ago.
The AP-AOL Money & Finance poll was conducted from March 24-April 3 by Abt SRBI Inc. It involved telephone interviews with 1,002 adults nationwide, for whom the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Included were interviews with 769 homeowners, for whom the sampling margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 points. The margin of sampling error for other subgroups was larger.