I had an exchange with a reader yesterday on Twitter about refinancing and how many homeowners in San Diego County owe more on their homes than they could sell for right now — known as being underwater.

Our chat reminded me I’ve been meaning to highlight the latest underwater numbers here in Survival. (Want to be privy to my Twitter thoughts? Follow me at @kellyrbennett.)

It all started when I linked to this New York Times story from over the weekend. Because of so much government investment in the market, interest rates are seriously, seriously low right now. They hadn’t been lower than 5 percent since the early 1950s, which makes tons of homeowners want to refinance their loans and save a few hundred bucks a month.

With the Fed’s program scheduled to expire in the spring, the rates aren’t likely to stick around for much longer. But those homeowners who most need to refinance can’t because banks are applying tough rules for getting the loans.

So, I want to know if you’ve got a story to tell like this guy in the Times’ piece:

Mark Belvedere bought a condominium in a San Francisco suburb in early 2004 and refinanced it in 2005. He now owes $235,000 on a property that would sell for barely half that today.

Mr. Belvedere said he would be willing to live with all that lost equity if he could refinance his loan from a variable rate, which could eventually go as high as 12 percent, into a 30-year fixed term.

His lender said no, citing the diminished value of the property. “It makes no sense and is so frustrating,” Mr. Belvedere said. “I’m ready and willing to pay the mortgage for the next 30 years, but they act like they’d rather have me walk away.”

I asked for stories on Twitter: “Know anyone in this boat?”

I heard back: “Ummmm … everyone?”

The reader was referring to the fact that a large share of San Diego County homeowners who have mortgages on their homes are underwater or upside-down.

“Any idea on the percentage of local folks able to secure refinancing right now (i.e. those not upside down)?” she asked.

You came to the right place.

In September, 32.5 percent of all San Diego County borrowers were upside-down, or owed more than house could sell for, according to third-quarter data released by First American CoreLogic, a California-based mortgage data firm.

That means 197,459 residential properties with a mortgage were underwater in the county as of September 2009.

It’s not clear whether the percentage is increasing or decreasing. Though the figure stood at 42.6 percent in June, the firm has changed the way it calculates the number since then.

If the firm had used its old calculation, though, the number of homeowners appeared to decrease slightly.

The Los Angeles Times had a helpful breakdown of that changing calculation in November.

But just because only about one-third of local homeowners are underwater doesn’t mean the rest can refinance their loans without problems. You usually need some equity to convince the bank to refinance your loan, not just break even, so probably less than two-thirds of county homeowners can snag today’s rates.


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