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Rebound rescues underwater homeowners

Maggie Medved was stuck with her house in Phoenix for two years after the market crash wiped out the equity in the property. Last year, as prices in the area rose by the most in the nation, she and her partner were finally able to sell the three-bedroom, 1950s style home and move to a larger place.

“We were counting the days for when we could move,” said Medved, 40, who trains employees for weight loss company Jenny Craig. “We definitely knew it was a waiting game because it would’ve been financial suicide if we had sold earlier.”

Medved was among the 12 million borrowers in the United States who at the peak of the real-estate downturn owed more on their mortgages than their houses were worth, blocking them from moving or saving money by taking advantage of the lowest borrowing costs on record to refinance.

As prices recovered, the number of underwater borrowers fell by almost 4 million last year to 7 million, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co., and could drop to 4 million within 2 years.

The housing market is rebounding faster than anyone thought possible, according to Blackstone Group’s global head of real estate Jonathan Gray, as the Federal Reserve buys mortgage bonds to keep rates near record lows and investors sop up a diminishing supply of properties for sale. Housing construction could boost U.S. gross domestic product by 0.4 percentage point and home price appreciation may add another 0.2 percentage point, Bank of America Corp.’s senior economist Michelle Meyer forecasts.

“It supports household wealth, consumer confidence and can generate greater credit creation,” Meyer said. “If prices are rising, homeowners believe that they will once again have an appreciating asset. It’s a very big change in how they think about their wealth and their balance sheets.”

Medved’s Phoenix home was on the market for two days before it sold for $85,000, just shy of the price paid in 1998. She and partner Wendy Thomas bought a larger property with a pool for $210,000 in Glendale, about 10 minutes away.

“We’d outgrown the house,” Medved said. “Almost 12 years later, we were in the hole $30,000. We couldn’t take that much of a loss and needed to stay regardless of what the neighborhood had become.”

Arizona’s capital city is leading the U.S. in price appreciation, surging 22 percent in the 12 months through October, according to an S&P/Case-Shiller index, which had the biggest year-over-year advance since May 2010.

Eighteen of the 20 cities in the index showed increases from a year earlier.

Even with the gains, Phoenix prices were down about 45 percent through November from their 2006 peak, according to Zillow Inc. Nationally, prices peaked in May 2007, according to the real-estate website, and are down 19 percent.

Prices of properties in Phoenix climbed as the inventory of houses for sale dropped to about 14,700 in December, about half of the normal level, according to Tina Waggoner, a real estate broker in Phoenix, and the one who sold Medved’s property last year.

“The supply has dropped substantially,” said Waggoner, who specializes in distressed sales. “Cash investors are beating out buyers all the time.”

JPMorgan analysts led by John Sim estimate the price growth last year was responsible for a reduction of almost 4 million in underwater borrowers.

The number of homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth may fall to 4 million by the end of 2015, according to Sim, whose team was the top-ranked for non-agency residential mortgage securities in Institutional Investor magazine’s annual survey for the past four years.

While a 5 percent increase in home prices could lower the number of underwater borrowers to just above the 5 million mark, a move of that magnitude in the other direction would push it back over 10 million, he wrote in the Jan. 4 report.