Modest signs that the economy is improving in Minnesota have become more numerous recently. State figures show 7,200 jobs added last month, after three months of losses. Bankruptcies are down in the state over the same time last year. Vehicle sales are clipping along at a steady pace.
And, arguably most important of all, homes sales seem to have turned a corner. Widespread foreclosures and plummeting home values were among the first major indications that the economy was going south, but the housing outlook is improving. Though the gains have been relatively small to date, they are worth celebrating.
The housing market is especially important because so many people have most of their net worth tied up in their homes. RealtyTrac recently reported that there were more than 14,000 Minnesota foreclosure filings last month -- a 10 percent increase from the previous six months, but a 4 percent decline from the same period last year.
And with home prices beginning to level off, the number of property owners who are underwater on their mortgages has dropped slightly. CoreLogic reports that 97,681 residential property owners in the Twin Cities, or 19.2 percent, owed more than the value of those properties during the first quarter of this year, compared with 21.7 percent during the previous quarter.
Freddie Mac officials said the average 30-year mortgage borrowing rate has dropped to 3.56 percent -- another record low. More-reasonable home prices and cheaper interest rates are bringing well-qualified buyers back into the market, now more confident that the home they purchase won't immediately lose value.
There have even been some local reports of increased buyer competition for homes. In some of the most desirable areas, what had been a strictly buyer's marketplace has shifted to a more competitive seller's arena. With multiple offers, some sellers are once again getting at or above their asking prices.
Those trends build confidence in the economy. More home sales generate more consumer spending in home-related goods, which can lead to more hiring and more consumer purchasing.
While the big picture shows that the housing market is stabilizing, few experts characterize the change as a complete rebound. Pockets of problems remain.
The AARP reported last week that seniors have been particularly hard hit by the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2011, about 1.5 million Americans older than 50 lost their houses to foreclosure. And of those, the highest rates were among homeowners older than 75. For older Americans on fixed incomes, the loss of a home creates more difficult challenges. Many seniors are more vulnerable to becoming homeless and are less able to find new employment or get new loans.
It will also be a struggle for low- to moderate-income people of color to dig back out after a foreclosure. Many African- and Latino-American neighborhoods were affected disproportionately by the mortgage crisis -- in part because they were victims of predatory lending. And even though mortgage rates are low, banks are less willing to take risks, and it's harder than before to qualify for loans.
Nevertheless, it's worth celebrating the signs that the housing market is finally come back to life. The recovery is long overdue.
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