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At his recreational softball league, local mortgage broker Dave McDonald often fields questions about real estate. These days, most of his friends ask a simple question: What are my options?

One teammate who has lost income thinks he’ll stop making payments. Another doesn’t want to leave his house, but is far from breaking even if he had to sell. The weight of that debt is heavy.

McDonald tells people to keep making their payments if they can. But the staggering plunge in prices in recent years makes the argument tougher.

“At some point, when you’re $200,000 upside-down, even if you really want to stay in the house, it becomes a business decision,” he said.

Home prices are increasing across San Diego County. Not every home or neighborhood is gaining value, but prices have risen for eight straight months. That’s according to numbers released Tuesday by Standard & Poor’s in the Case-Shiller home price index, which measures the market as of the end of January. The closely watched index showed an increase of 0.9 percent between December and January, seasonal adjustments included.

But the slight gains aren’t enough for homeowners whose debts exceed the value of their homes by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, the government is throwing program after program at the housing market to try to stop foreclosures, stabilize neighborhoods and incentivize new people to come along and buy those homes. With trouble lurking under the surface, the question is whether those government efforts will perpetuate the fledgling recovery.

New programs have been arriving nearly daily and range from giving homeowners a break on mortgage payments if they’ve lost their jobs, to paying them to leave their homes in a short sale, to refinancing their mortgages into lower-rate loans, to lowering the total amount they owe on the home.

Those are the palette of options McDonald hears about at softball. Professionals like him say the efforts are a long time coming but still far from a sure solution. Banks generally have to voluntarily agree to the fixes. The previous attempts at such an accord have fallen short, McDonald said.

“It’s the timing factor that bothers me — they’ve had three to four years to come up with these solutions,” he said. “If they started working on these things two or three years ago, we’d be way ahead of the game right now, or at least even. But we’re still in the reactive mode.”

Those programs aim to fight the looming trouble still facing the local market. The proportion of homeowners who are behind on their payments is hovering at record highs — for regular borrowers, and for the exotic loans popularized in the housing boom that allowed homebuyers into the market who wouldn’t have qualified before.

Of the borrowers in San Diego County holding active subprime loans, 44.9 percent were at least two months late on their mortgage payments as of the end of January, according to First American CoreLogic.

The trouble with subprime is well-known. But it’s just a sliver of the market, representing only about 4 percent of the active mortgages here.

By contrast, the category above subprime, the higher-risk loans for borrowers with good credit, also shows increasing distress — and it counts for 12 percent of the active loans in the county.

In that category, called Alt-A, nearly 30 percent of the borrowers were at least two months delinquent by the end of January — up a couple of percentage points from last summer.

And more prime, or regular, good-credit borrowers are at least two months behind — 8.9 percent in January, up a couple of percentage points from last July.

Mark Goldman, a local mortgage broker and real estate professor at San Diego State University, said the region’s unemployment rate — more than one in 10 local residents out of work in February — is a direct cause.

“When people don’t have jobs they can’t make their mortgage payments,” Goldman said. “The problem now isn’t as much what kind of loan did people get, it’s more about the distress in earned income or in the value of the property.”

While the region watches to see if the new government programs will save underwater homeowners, there is an undeniable frenzy among the first-time buyers who’ve decided now is the time to look.

In a normal year, the spring is a vibrant season for home-buying. Even when the federal and state governments aren’t throwing thousands of dollars your way if you buy a house.

This spring, buyers are out and frantic to ink a contract on a home to meet the April 30 deadline for the federal break, and hopeful to catch the right window to double-dip with a new state tax credit, too.

Rising home prices in the county embolden them even further. But the number of homes available for sale is not keeping up with demand.

Yamila Ayad owns Mission Home Loans in San Marcos and said she has 40 families qualified with savings and good credit scores who just can’t find a house. Ayad said she hopes banks begin releasing more houses onto the market soon so the buyers have some choices.

Many of Ayad’s clients have told her they know they could stretch their dollars further each month to get a bigger house, but want mortgages with lower payments, to play it more conservatively for the time being, she said.

“It’s been so close to the cataclysm, that I think the lessons have been learned,” she said. “I’m very encouraged by a very healthy optimism about our market — that invigorates me.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Follow her on Twitter @kellyrbennett.

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