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The American Mortgage in Historical and International Context

  • Richard K. Green
  • Susan M. Wachter

Home mortgages have loomed continually larger in the financial situation of American households. In 1949, mortgage debt was equal to 20 percent of total household income; by 1979, it had risen to 46 percent of income; by 2001, 73 percent of income (Bernstein, Boushey and Mishel, 2003). Similarly, mortgage debt was 15 percent of household assets in 1949, but rose to 28 percent of household assets by 1979 and 41 percent of household assets by 2001. This enormous growth of American home mortgages, as shown in Figure 1 (as a percentage of GDP), has been accompanied by a transformation in their form such that American mortgages are now distinctively different from mortgages in the rest of the world. In addition, the growth in mortgage debt outstanding in the United States has closely tracked the mortgage market's increased reliance on securitization (Cho, 2004). The structure of the modern American mortgage has evolved over time. We begin by describing this historical evolution. The U.S. mortgage before the 1930s would be nearly unrecognizable today: it featured variable interest rates, high down payments and short maturities. Before the Great Depression, homeowners typically renegotiated their loans every year. We next compare the form of U.S. home mortgages today with those in other countries. The U.S. mortgage provides many more options to borrowers than are commonly provided elsewhere: American homebuyers can choose whether to pay a fixed or floating rate of interest; they can lock in their interest rate in between the time they apply for the mortgage and the time they purchase their house; they can choose the time at which the mortgage rate resets; they can choose the term and the amortization period; they can prepay freely; and they can generally borrow against home equity freely. They can also obtain home mortgages at attractive terms with very low down payments. We discuss the nature of the U.S. government intervention in home mortgage markets that has led to the specific choices available to American homebuyers. We believe that the unique characteristics of the U.S. mortgage provide substantial benefits for American homeowners and the overall stability of the economy.

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File URL: http://www.lusk.usc.edu/sites/default/files/The-American-Mortgage-in-Historical-and-International-Context-06.14.06.pdf
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Paper provided by USC Lusk Center for Real Estate in its series Working Paper with number 9094.

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Date of creation: 2005
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Handle: RePEc:luk:wpaper:9094
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  1. W. Scott Frame & Lawrence J. White, 2005. "Fussing and Fuming over Fannie and Freddie: How Much Smoke, How Much Fire?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 19(2), pages 159-184, Spring.
  2. Andreas Lehnert & Wayne Passmore & Shane M. Sherlund, 2006. "GSEs, mortgage rates, and secondary market activities," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2006-30, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  3. Roberto G. Quercia & George W. McCarthy & Susan M. Wachter, . "The Impacts of Affordable Lending Efforts on Home Ownership Rates," Zell/Lurie Center Working Papers 304, Wharton School Samuel Zell and Robert Lurie Real Estate Center, University of Pennsylvania.
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  5. Ambrose, Brent W. & Buttimer, Richard Jr., 2005. "GSE impact on rural mortgage markets," Regional Science and Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 35(4), pages 417-443, July.
  6. Bert Ely, 2004. "How to privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," Proceedings 923, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
  7. Dwight Jaffee, 2003. "The Interest Rate Risk of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," Journal of Financial Services Research, Springer, vol. 24(1), pages 5-29, August.
  8. Kerry D. Vandell, 1995. "FHA Restructuring Proposals: Alternatives and Implications," Wisconsin-Madison CULER working papers 95-09, University of Wisconsin Center for Urban Land Economic Research.
  9. Allen Frankel & Jacob Gyntelberg & Kristian Kjeldsen & Mattias Persson, 2004. "The Danish mortgage market," BIS Quarterly Review, Bank for International Settlements, March.
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