In a vivid sketch of how the sputtering real estate market is causing distress throughout the country, the Associated Press-AOL Money & Finance poll found that more than a quarter of homeowners worry their home will lose value over the next two years. Fully one in seven mortgage holders fear they won't be able to make their monthly payments on time over the next six months.
"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," Jackson, 30, said in a follow-up interview.
Jackson is not alone. Sixty percent said they definitely won't buy a home in the next two years, up from 53 percent who said so in an AP-AOL poll in September 2006. At the same time, just 11 percent are certain or very likely to buy soon, down from 15 percent two years ago.
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.
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, particularly Midwesterners.
Some pockets 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."
One in 10 have adjustable rate mortgages, half of 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.
Daniel Gallego, a warehouse worker in Stockton, Calif., said he may have to sell his home at a big loss. He said rising gasoline and other costs 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.
"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."
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 it's 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 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.