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Home Equity Loans Are on the Rise...Should We Be Worried?

According to recent data, the home equity loan market is rebounding. Even though outstanding balances on home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) are more than 26% below their 2009 peak and have dropped for 10 straight quarters, it looks like the amount of new originations is on the rise.

Home equity loans were a major factor in the pre-crisis spending frenzy in the U.S., so should we be worried about this, or is it different this time around?

Still way below the peak
The dollar amount of new home equity credit lines originated grew 20% last year to $92.5 billion, but is far below what we've seen in years past. New originations peaked at $383.8 billion in 2006, and began to drop until 2010. Since 2011, originations have been on the rise once again. However, even though originations are on the rise, the total outstanding lines of credit continue to fall, for now.

US Banks Home Equity Lines of Credit Chart

What that tells us is that current lines of credit are being paid off, cancelled, or written off faster than new lines of credit are being originated. This makes sense given the massive volume of HELOCs originated in the pre-crisis years.

This may be a backlog of business
One reason we're seeing an increase in new HELOCs is the sharp recovery in home prices in many parts of the country. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Composite 20 Index, average home prices are up about 25% from their lows in major U.S. cities.

Case-Shiller Home Price Index: Composite 20 Chart

This means that people now have more equity they can tap into, and may take the opportunity now to borrow money for things they have been putting off. For instance, many home equity loans are taken out to finance repairs or improvements to the home. If someone didn't have sufficient equity in their home, they could put the repairs off until the equity improved. This type of delayed borrowing may be what we're seeing now.

As long as standards remain reasonable, we'll be alright
Most banks will allow customers to borrow 80-85% of their home's value through a combination of a mortgage and a home equity loan. So, if your mortgage balance is 70% of the value of your home, you should expect to be able to borrow 10-15% of your home's value in the form of a home equity loan. The idea here is that if you can't pay the loans back, the bank could sell your house for more than you owe and recoup their money.

However, it wasn't always this way. During the mid-2000's it was relatively easy to borrow up to 125% of your home's value. In many cases, consumers would literally put no money down on a home, and then proceed to borrow up to 25% of its value to fuel their spending habits. When you consider the inflated values of homes during that time period, it's easy to see how this got out of control quickly.

So, no matter how much we see home equity lending increase, as long as people are limited to borrowing considerably less than their homes are worth, there is no cause for panic. When responsibly used, home equity loans are essential to a healthy real estate market, as they allow homeowners to pay for repairs and improvements on their homes.

They are not, however, intended to let people afford cars and vacations they otherwise couldn't. Until we see that happen again, and with lines of credit of more than the home's value, the recovery is still in good shape.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2014, at 6:15 PM, DebtNEUTRALITY wrote:

    Lost in all of the HELOC discussions are the amazing homeowners who actually paid off their home AND THEN took out a FIRST LIEN HELOC with an LTV of 50% or less.

    These salt of the earth first lien HELOC homeowners have been thrown out with "the second lien, cash out HELOC's who were much more likely to strategically default", bathwater.

    Because of Dodd / Frank these First Lien, very safe HELOC investments that are about to reset cannot be REHELOC'd, aka replacement HELOC.

    Everybody wins with a first lien, 50% or less LTV REHELOC. The first investor is paid off after having received interest only profit payments for 10 years. The homeowner won because they were able to liquify a portion of their paid off home without jeopardizing their financial responsibilities, and the new investor can look forward to a very safe, first lien 50% or less LTV REHELOC.

    Oh yeah, first lien REHELOC's don't exist. What a crime that is.

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Matthew Frankel

Matt brought his love of teaching and investing to the Fool in order to help people invest better, after several years as a math teacher. Matt specializes in writing about the best opportunities in bank stocks, real estate, and personal finance, but loves any investment at the right price. Follow me on Twitter to keep up with all of the best financial coverage!

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