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Home ownership rate falls to decade low, poll shows

The aftermath of the worst housing collapse since the 1930s continues to take a toll on the American Dream of owning a home.

Echoing the results of other surveys, a new poll from Gallup, released Thursday, found that just 62 percent of Americans now own a home  - the lowest in more than a decade.

That’s down from home ownership rates of 73 percent tracked by Gallup in 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing boom.

The U.S. Census estimates that the home ownership rate peaked at 69.2 percent at the end of 2004 and fell to 66.4 percent by the end of last year. The last time the Census recorded a 62 percent rate was in 1965.

Home ownership has been hit hard by the ongoing wave of mortgage foreclosures that followed the housing collapse. For millions more households, their grip on ownership is being tested by the burden of a mortgage that’s bigger than their house is worth. Gallup found that just over half of homeowners (53 percent) say their house is worth more than when they bought it. That’s down from 80 percent in 2008.

Statistics like those are discouraging many would-be first-time buyers, who are reluctant to commit to a purchase in a fragile economy and a weak job market. Others are waiting for clearer signs that house prices have stabilized. Despite a slowdown in the contraction of home values, prices continue to fall in many parts of the country.

Those falling prices, along with record low interest rates, have made houses more affordable than in generations. Those conditions haven’t been overlooked by potential buyers; some 70 percent of Americans say they believe it’s a "good time" to buy a house, according to Gallup. That’s about the same response as in the past several years, but up from just 53 percent in 2008.

But while a majority thinks it’s a good time to buy, many of those households aren’t able to get a mortgage.

Part of the explanation, according to Gallup's chief economist Dennis Jacobe, can be found in the “broken housing finance system” that relies almost entirely on government mortgage agencies like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration.

“Potential home buyers can take advantage of today's low mortgage interest rates only if they can meet significantly more stringent down payment and underwriting standards than was the case prior to the financial crisis,” Jacobe wrote in a post about the survey results.

It's not surprising that lending standards tightened after the financial debacle created by mortgage lenders who wrote a torrent of high-profit, risky loans to borrowers with bad credit. But by some measures, lenders have become even choosier than they were before the housing boom took off