American homeowners are better informed about their mortgages than they were a year ago, but many remain ignorant. More than one in four (26 percent) still don’t know the exact nature of their home loan.

However, more homeowners report having fixed-rate mortgages this year than last year.

These findings were part of a GfK Roper random survey of homeowners and others. Bankrate commissioned the study of Americans’ attitudes about borrowing as part of our Financial Literacy series.

In last year’s survey, 34 percent of poll respondents said they did not know what type of mortgage they had. The number dropped by 8 percentage points in this year’s survey.

“I am pleased to see that number down, but it is still too high,” says Kim McGrigg, a spokeswoman for Money Management International, a nonprofit national group that counsels consumers about homeownership and credit.

Mortgage know-how
What type of mortgage do you currently have? 2008

Total

2009

Total

Fixed-rate 65% 57%
Adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM 7% 6%
Interest only 2% 3%
Option ARM
Don’t know 26% 34%

Foreclosures foreshadow responses

Greg McBride, Bankrate’s senior financial analyst, says he is not surprised that large numbers of Americans continue to confess ignorance about the nature of their mortgages.

“Last year it was surprising, but not this year,” McBride says. “Look no further than the number of foreclosures.”

“Many of today’s distressed homeowners didn’t know what they were signing for at the loan closing. Even those that did know what type of loan (they were getting) didn’t know enough specifics and were blindsided by big payment increases.”

Others were taken aback by the results. Ellen Frank, senior economic analyst at The Poverty Institute at Rhode Island College, School of Social Work, expressed surprise that so many poll respondents still do not fully understand the details of their home loans.

“On the other hand, we have to realize that large investors didn’t know the default rates on mortgages in the securities they held,” she says, referring to institutional investors who should know better. “Ignorance and herd-like behavior is pretty much ubiquitous in financial markets.”

Homeowners seek security

New this year: A greater percentage of poll respondents report having fixed-rate mortgages. In the latest poll, 65 percent of respondents said they have fixed-rate mortgages, up from 57 percent in 2007.

McGrigg believes many consumers are moving to fixed-rate mortgages to eliminate the element of risk that is built into adjustable-rate financing.

“The housing crisis has forced consumers to change the way they approach mortgage debt,” she says. “An increasing number of consumers want to play it safe. For many people, peace of mind is valuable.”

McGrigg says the higher percentage of homeowners with fixed-rate mortgages also likely reflects the fact that more programs are available now to homeowners who are struggling with increasing ARM payments to refinance to fixed rate loans.

Growing worries

This year’s survey results reveal a notable increase in the level of concern Americans feel about their monthly housing costs.

Nearly one-third of Americans with mortgages say they sometimes or regularly worry about their ability to afford home payments over the next year.

Do you worry?
How often do you worry about whether or not you’ll be able to afford your home payments next year? 2008

Total

2007

Total

Regularly 13% 15%
Sometimes 18% 13%
Rarely 17% 17%
Never 48% 53%
Don’t know 3% 2%

“The number is upsetting,” McGrigg says. “I think the word ‘worry’ paints an accurate picture of our current state of mind.”

For example, 31 percent of Americans said they regularly (13 percent) or sometimes (18 percent) worry about meeting their home payment obligations. In the survey, home payments were defined including mortgage, property taxes and homeowners insurance.

That marked a 3 percentage point increase from 2007, when 28 percent said they regularly or sometimes worried about making their home payments.

In particular, the percentage of homeowners who said they “sometimes” worry jumped from 13 percent to 18 percent, considered a statistically significant increase.

Also, the percentage of Americans who said they “never” worry about making their home payments declined from 53 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2008.

Growing homeowner concern about making the house payment makes sense, given the state of the U.S. economy, McBride says.

“In recent years, too many homebuyers and homeowners stretched too far,” he says. “With home prices falling, job losses rising, and inflation pressures evident in everyday staples, it isn’t surprising that more people are worried compared to last year.”

Reality vs. perceptions

Frank says that it’s hard to tell whether the anxiety felt by Americans is grounded in reality or media hype.

“The large numbers of people who are worried about their ability to pay their mortgages may reflect a weakening economy and housing market, or it may be that people are panicked by media reports of foreclosures,” Frank says.

Ken Wade, chief executive officer of NeighborWorks America, says Americans are feeling squeezed by a lack of affordable housing.

“Home prices — both rental and homeownership — have been outpacing incomes for a good 10 years now,” says Wade, whose nonprofit organization provides financial support and training for community-based revitalization efforts.

“That’s been somewhat of a unique, new phenomenon. So, I think there are many people who are in homes (who) may be paying a significant portion of their income for their housing costs.”

Most not delinquent

Although many homeowners are worried, the vast majority of poll respondents — 91.5 percent — say they were never more than 30 days late in making a mortgage payment in the past year.

Frank says those numbers may not be as positive as they appear at first blush.

“Eight percent is a high rate of late payments,” she says, considering that “even in good times, late payments average 2 percent to 3 percent.”

Only 4 percent of survey respondents admitted to making late payments, and nearly 5 percent either didn’t know or wouldn’t say.

However, McBride sees more room for optimism in those numbers.

“Delinquencies and foreclosures are at record levels,” he says. “But because 92 percent of homeowners are still on time, consumer spending and the overall economy continue to limp along and haven’t been knocked out despite the headwinds.”

On another positive note, the percentage of homeowners who “regularly” worried about making their payments actually declined slightly, from 15 percent in 2007 to 13 percent in 2008.

Gender gap

The survey also uncovered some specific differences between how men and women perceive and understand their mortgage situation.

Women worry more
How often do you worry about whether or not you’ll be able to afford your home payments next year? Male Female
Regularly/Somewhat/Rarely (net) 39% 55%
Regularly 13% 14%
Sometimes 11% 24%
Rarely 18% 17%
Never 54% 44%
Don’t know 6% 1%

For example, men were substantially more likely to know what type of mortgage they had (80 percent) compared to women (69 percent).

Women (55 percent) also are more likely to worry about how they will make house payments in the next year than men (39 percent). In fact, more than half of men (54 percent) said they never worry about their ability to make their house payments over the next 12 months.

Wade speculated that these differences may be due to historical gender roles that still hold true in many cases today.

For example, men traditionally have been in charge of handling many of the big financial family decisions, so they would be more likely to know the details of the family mortgage.

By contrast, women remain more likely to be in charge of managing the family’s daily budget. This may help account for their increased concern about the family’s ability to meet house payment obligations.

“She’s typically the one doing the grocery shopping, taking care of the other kind of day-to-day household responsibilities,” Wade says. “So, she would be more conscious of the impact that increased prices are having on the family budget.”

What credit crunch?

This year’s survey also asked respondents about whether the credit crunch had affected them personally. Just 14 percent said “yes,” an indication that the crisis is impacting relatively few Americans.

The breakdown of those personally affected by tightening lending standards associated with the credit crunch was as follows:

  • Denied a personal loan: 7 percent.
  • Turned down for a car loan: 6 percent.
  • Reduced credit card borrowing privileges: 5 percent.
  • Inability to refinance a mortgage: 4 percent.
  • Frozen or restricted home equity line: 1 percent.

Respondents under the age of 50 (20 percent) are more than twice as likely as Americans over the age of 50 (8 percent) to say credit issues have affected them personally.

McGrigg says she was surprised that relatively few Americans are reporting problems associated with the credit crunch.

“The tightening of lending practices is something that many people anticipated,” she says. “Perhaps consumers have just come to terms with the perception that it is just not a good time to borrow.”

McBride says he is not surprised that so few respondents reported being affected by the credit crisis.

At any given time, only a small percentage of the population is in the market for a loan, he says, and an even smaller share would be negatively impacted by tighter underwriting guidelines.

“However the credit crunch has impacted nearly everyone by depressing economic growth, leading to more job losses and shrinking 401(k) balances,” McBride says.

This national random-digit-dialed phone study of 1,004 adults 18 or older was conducted for Bankrate by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. The surveys were conducted from August 8 through August 10, 2008. The sample was weighted by demographic factors including age, gender, race, education and census region to ensure reliable and accurate representation of adults in U.S. households. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3 percentage points for the full sample. For full results and methodology, download this PDF.

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