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​Why buying a home is easier if you're white

When it comes to trying to a buy a home, it helps to be white.

Black and Hispanic homeowners were more than twice as likely to be rejected for conventional mortgage loans than whites in 2013, according to a new study from real estate site Zillow. Adding to the challenges of minority home buyers, property values in some black and Hispanic neighborhoods still remain far below their pre-recession peaks, while home values in many chiefly white and Asian areas have either reached or surpassed those peak levels, the report found.

Mortgage lending discrimination has been well documented, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showing a decade ago that blacks and Hispanics faced discrimination even early in the loan-hunting process. More recently, big banks including Wells Fargo (WFC) and Bank of America (BAC) have settled cases involving claims of discrimination against minority borrowers.

In the Zillow study, the blacks and Hispanics that applied for conventional home loans earned about $20,000 less per year, which the company cited as a reason for the higher denial rates.

"While many of the disparities between the experiences of white communities and minority communities during the housing boom and bust can be explained by plain differences in finances and geography, it's clear that the housing playing field remains strikingly unequal in this country," said Zillow chief economist Stan Humphries in a statement.

Still, the discrepancy in loan denials might have more to do with income and geography than any racial bias, Zillow senior economist Skylar Olsen told CBS MoneyWatch. "A lot of it is correlated to income," she said. "It starts there -- higher-income households generally have better credit scores. With higher incomes, you are able to dip into savings when times get tough. If you can't do that, you accumulate credit-card debt and that impacts your credit score."

To some degree, the issue boils down to a socioeconomic one, rather than race, especially as the gulf between the top earners and low-income workers widened during the recession, she added. "Housing is a vehicle to save and build wealth," Olsen noted. "The top-tier homes fared [better] through the bubble and bust than others. It's like the haves and the have-mores. The bottom tier came out worse off -- it's the have-nots and have-less."

That uneven playing field affects current black and Hispanic homeowners, given the still-lagging housing values in some minority neighborhoods, the study found. For instance, home prices in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area are still more than one-fifth below their pre-recession peaks. For homes in mostly white communities in Los Angeles, housing values are near their peak levels, while homes in predominantly Asian communities are above those pre-recession highs.

Some of those differences can be explained by geography, the study found. There is a high concentration of Asian-Americans in many parts of the West Coast, where housing values have rebounded faster. Meanwhile, many Hispanic communities are located in the Southwest and Southern California, which are still struggling to recover.

Across the U.S., regardless of race, the conventional loan denial rate is 12.4 percent. That rises to 27.6 percent for black applicants and 21.9 percent for Hispanic applicants. The denial rate for white applicants is just 10.4 percent, while Asian applicants face a denial rate of 13.3 percent.

Notably, the denial rate for black borrowers varies considerably based by town. The highest denial rate was recorded in Chicago, where almost 1 out of 3 black applicants was turned down for a conventional mortgage. By contrast, blacks in San Diego had a much better chance of securing a mortgage, with a 13.1 percent denial rate, compared with 9.4 percent for whites.

Decades after "redlining," or denying loans and financial services to minorities, was targeted by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, black and Hispanic homeownership still remains far lower than for whites. The Fair Housing Act prohibited mortgage lenders from denying a loan based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disabilities.

The homeownership rate among whites is 71.1 percent, 41.9 percent for blacks and 45.2 percent for Hispanics, Zillow said.