NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Amid an economic downturn, one of the worst bear markets in history and rising unemployment, homeowners have been tapping the equity in their homes by refinancing at record rates or taking out home equity loans or lines of credit.
That's been a sound strategy for consumers who handle money responsibly, are fortunate enough to remain gainfully employed, and who live in an area where housing prices continue to grow at a healthy pace.
But for some consumers, tapping home equity can be an unstable crutch if they end up spending their equity while still living in their homes and at the same time continue to run up debt. The crunch time for them could come if home prices in their area flatten or grow at an anemic rate -- as already has happened in some regions of the country -- or if they lose a job or remain underemployed for a sustained period of time.
The delinquency rates on home equity loans (HELs) and lines of credit (HELOCs) have been moderately low, especially when compared with their levels in 1991, during the last recession. At the end of the fourth quarter last year, delinquent loan payments were up from the third quarter, but at just 1.64 percent, according to the American Bankers Association. Delinquencies on home equity lines of credit, meanwhile, remained nearly flat at 0.56 percent.
But there have been some signs of credit strain among consumers. Credit card delinquencies – paying credit card bills late -- hit a record high at the end of last year, as did personal bankruptcies. While new mortgage foreclosures and mortgage delinquencies were down in the fourth quarter, the number of pre-existing foreclosure cases were at an all-time high. And the number of delinquencies in direct auto loans rose.
Plus, more consumers sought debt counseling in 2002 than in 2001 at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and Consolidated Credit Counseling Services (CCCS). And while the average income of NFCC's clients is about $30,000, NFCC saw increases last year in the number of clients who make $50,000 or more.
How to tell if you're overextended
Indeed, having a higher income than the norm is not necessarily a guarantee a consumer will be free of debt problems. When it comes to credit cards, for instance, "higher income people are just as likely to be delinquent as low-income people," said Keith Leggett, a senior economist at the American Bankers Association.
That's not surprising to CCCS President Howard Dvorkin, who observes that whether you make $20,000, $50,000 or $100,000, "you adjust your lifestyle accordingly."
And that lifestyle can put a strain on your bottom line. A survey by CCCS showed that overspending on housing and transportation were the two most common causes of serious debt among its clients.
Knowing whether you're overextended financially means being alert to both the subtle and not-so-subtle signs, which include:
- Not being able to pay your major bills on time (for example, mortgage and other loans)
- Not being able to pay more than the minimum due on your credit cards
- Not having any savings to cushion you in the event you lose your job or have your hours reduced
- Borrowing from one lender to pay another
- Getting calls from debt collectors
- Being sued by a creditor
Another key sign of debt distress: Every time you see what you owe, you just don't want to deal with it.
But "by ignoring it, it just gets worse," Leggett said. Lenders, he noted, will be less likely to restructure a loan to make it more manageable for you if you've avoided them or make promises you don't fulfill.
Hoping the economy improves -- and, by osmosis, your situation -- is not a sound strategy either. Economists say that an improvement in the jobs picture may help reduce the strain on consumers who are delinquent in making payments. But an improving economy also may mean higher interest rates, which in turn will make your home more expensive to new buyers. And that may put a damper on housing prices and hence the potential for growth in your equity.
That's a problem if your debt levels remain high or you bought your house at the top of the market and you were depending on equity growth to tide you over, either through the sale of the home or through a home loan.
So what can you do?
The best way to dispense with debt problems depends on what type of debt you have (for example, the kind a bank can seize, such as your home), how much you owe, and how many creditors you have.
For some consumers, changing their spending habits can go a long way. For others, dealing directly with a lender to restructure debt is the best route. And for some, working with a reputable credit counseling program can be helpful. (For more, read Money 101: Controlling Debt, and use CNN/Money's Debt Reduction Planner to see how long it will take to pay off your credit cards.)
One simple thing everyone can do if harassed by debt collectors is to send a cease-and-desist letter, telling them to stop calling you. Under the federal "Fair Debt Collection Practices Act," the collection agency is obligated to comply, said Karen Gross, a professor of law at New York Law School who specializes in bankruptcy and consumer finance. "It's a hugely powerful weapon that most consumers don't know about," she said.