Image: Albany City Hall
Hans Pennink  /  Reuters
Unemployment in the Albany, N.Y., region is just 6.7 percent — a factor that has propped up the housing market there.
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updated 11/13/2011 11:59:11 AM ET 2011-11-13T16:59:11

President Obama recently announced he would extend the nation’s mortgage refinancing program in an effort to provide relief to homeowners whose mortgages are worth more than the value of their homes. With 11 million underwater households no one can claim the housing crisis over. However, some regions have survived the crisis better than others. In those areas, home values are either stable or rising, and unemployment is below the national average.

24/7 Wall St. has identified the markets with the least underwater homes. When the housing bubble was in full swing in the beginning of the 2000s, millions of Americans bought new homes at historic high prices. Based on the belief that property values continue to rise, it seemed a good strategy. However, when the housing bubble finally burst and the recession began, home values declined sharply, unemployment skyrocketed, and homeowners could no longer make their mortgage payments.

24/7 Wall St.: American cities sunk by underwater mortgages 

Strong employment and housing markets went hand in hand. Regions that added jobs also had sizzling housing markets. Of course, the housing boom in these areas contributed to further job growth. In places like Las Vegas, which saw major job growth during the the boom, home prices increased by 36 percent during the first half of the decade. When the market collapsed, these regions were hurt the most. The extension of the Home Affordable Modification Program, which is considered a failure by many economists, may provide a shot in the arm to such markets.

It appears the only places that managed to survive this crisis were those that were suffering economically at the time when people were building and buying new homes. These cities, which include Rochester, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, were in many cases former industrial powerhouses that have been steadily losing jobs for the past 40 years. In these regions, home values remained stable during the crisis and relatively few risky mortgages were taken out on new homes.

Now, these regions, which did not benefit from the nation’s housing boom, are doing better than most. Because fewer homes were built in the last decade and these cities are now adding jobs, prices have remained stable and even increased.

Using data obtained from housing data and analytics firm CoreLogic, 24/7 Wall St. has identified the ten regions built around an urban center — core-based statistical areas — with housing markets that had the lowest percent of homes with underwater mortgages. We compared the data to the number of REO sales (sales of homes that had been repossessed) and distressed sales (sales by homeowners who could not continue to make mortgage payments) for the same regions. We obtained unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We obtained data on homes built since 2000 from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Here is 24/7 Wall St.’s ten cities with the fewest underwater mortgages.

10. Honolulu, Hawaii

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 6.58
  • 12-Month home price change: +6.97 percent
  • Unemployment: 5.5 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 11 percent

The value of homes in the Hawaii region has gone up nearly 7 percent in the past 12 months, which is one of the biggest price increases in the country, according to enterprise risk management firm VeroFORECAST. Honolulu owes its strong housing market to a low unemployment rate — just 5.5 percent — as well as a general high demand for homes. Properties on the island have a much higher value than the U.S. average. According to the Census Bureau’s housing statistics, 58.3 percent of Honolulu’s homes are worth $500,000 or more, compared to the national average of just 10.5 percent.

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9. Pittsburgh, Pa.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 5.93
  • 12-Month home price change: +4.39 percent
  • Unemployment: 7.8 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 6.7 percent

About 94 percent of all homes in the Pittsburgh region are more valuable than their mortgages. Homeowners in the region are fiscally sound. The 7.8 percent unemployment rate is significantly lower than the national average of 9.1 percent. In addition, the costs associated with owning a home — mortgages, insurance payments, and taxes — are lower than the national average. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, many are choosing to buy homes in the region because housing is affordable and foreclosures are relatively low. Last year, Forbes named Pittsburgh as the best place to buy a Home. This year, the city was rated second.

8. Oklahoma City, Okla.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 5.71
  • 12-Month home price change: +0.83 percent
  • Unemployment: 5 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 15.8 percent

Oklahoma City was rated by Forbes as the fourth best city to buy a home, citing the region’s good conditions for employment. Among the 372 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the U.S., Oklahoma City has the 11th lowest unemployment rate, at just 5 percent. According to NewsOK, despite the relatively good condition of the local housing market, regional officials are still thankful for the changes to the Affordable Refinance Program.

7. Lancaster, Pa.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 5.44
  • 12-Month home price change: -1.83 percent
  • Unemployment: 7.3 percent (tied for 93rd lowest)
  • Homes built since 2000: 10.6 percent

Lancaster, located in Pennsylvania’s Dutch country, has one of the healthiest housing markets in the country, with just 5.44 percent of homes with underwater mortgages. The region has low unemployment, and 95.5 percent of homes are occupied, compared to a national rate of 86.9 percent. This year, Forbes rated Lancaster as the 7th best place to buy a home, citing low unemployment and affordable housing.

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6. Huntsville, Ala.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 5.30
  • 12-Month home price change: -4.39 percent
  • Unemployment: 8.1 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 21.7 percent

Only 9.1 percent of home sales in Hunstville, Alabama are made by owners who can no longer afford to make mortgage payments. Part of the reason for this is the relatively small expenses owners have to incur to keep the home, such as mortgage and insurance payments. In 53 percent of the region’s homes, these costs for homeowners are less than 20 percent of their annual income. In the U.S. as a whole, only 33 percent of homes are in that favorable position.

5. Fayetteville, N.C.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 4.56
  • 12-Month home price change: +1.14 percent
  • Unemployment: 6.6 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 21.6 percent

The expenses that come with owning a home include mortgage and insurance payments, real estate taxes, and heating costs. Nationwide, nearly 30 percent of homeowners pay more than 2,000 or more on such expenses. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, just 10 percent pay that much. Unemployment in the region is relatively high, at 10.4 percent, but low costs and rising home values in the region help keep more than 95 percent of the region’s mortgages above water.

4. Buffalo-Niagara Falls, N.Y.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 4.22
  • 12-Month home price change: 3.92 percent
  • Unemployment: 7.3 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 5.3 percent

Buffalo home values have been declining for years as businesses have slowly left the region. However, the housing market is beginning to pick up in the region. As reported in USA Today, the Buffalo housing market remained sluggish during the housing bubble, and so it didn’t suffer from the collapse most of the country experienced. In the article, Bonnie Clement, a local realtor, explains: “We’ve never had a market that has gone way over the top, and, therefore, we don’t have a market that’s now falling down.” In the past 12 month period, home values have increased by nearly 4 percent.

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3. Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 4.01
  • 12-Month home price change: -0.90 percent
  • Unemployment: 6.7 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 9.6 percent

Just 4.01 percent of mortgaged homes in the Albany region are worth less than their mortgages. Like Buffalo, the region didn’t experience much of a housing boom with the rest of the nation, and so the market hasn’t suffered as much in the aftermath. Only 9.6 percent of currently standing homes were built in the past ten years, compared to a national average of 14.9 percent. Unemployment in the region is just 6.7 percent, and just 2.58 percent of home sales were made because owners could no longer afford upkeep.

2. El Paso, Texas

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 3.89
  • 12-Month home price change: +5.73 percent
  • Unemployment: 10.6 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 19.6 percent

In the past 12 months, home prices in El Paso have increased by 5.73 percent, while prices nationwide have dropped by 4.4 percent. The housing market in the region, according to the El Paso Times, is exceedingly tight. Just 8.2 percent of homes are vacant, compared to a national rate of 13.1 percent. According to the article, El Paso is seeing “Historically low home mortgage rates, including a drop below 4 percent for the first time ever early this month…” This has helped increase home value in the area.

1. Rochester, N.Y.

  • Percentage of homes underwater: 3.41
  • 12-Month home price change: +0.25 percent
  • Unemployment: 7.1 percent
  • Homes built since 2000: 7.2 percent

Just 3.41 percent of mortgages in the Rochester, N.Y. region are underwater mortgages. This is the lowest rate in the country. The story for Rochester is very much the same as its regional neighbors Albany and Buffalo. The housing boom failed to reach the area, and so very few new homes were built. In the U.S., 8.8 percent of all homes were built between 2000 and 2005. In Rochester, just 4.1 percent of current homes were built during that period. Foreclosure rates have been extremely low in the region. In the past recorded 12-month period, just 2.89 percent of home sales were of formerly foreclosed-upon homes.

Copyright © 2012 24/7 Wall St. Republished with permission.

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