Nation & World

Thousands stuck in starter homes

They're trapped, like so many members of their generation.

Steve and Tasha McLaughlin have had two kids since they bought their two-bedroom "Brady Bunch"-style house in South Natomas seven years ago. They need more room, but they can't move: The house they bought for $256,000 is worth just $90,000, and an attempt to sell it failed.

"We are literally stuck," said Tasha McLaughlin, 33. "There's no light ahead."

The McLaughlins and tens of thousands of others like them in the Sacramento region are unable to take the traditional second step on the American home ownership ladder. They are captive to outsized mortgages born in a real estate bubble, which have balances much higher than the homes are now worth.

During the boom years, young families could sell their first homes to buy larger ones, using the equity they built up in their starter models. But for those who bought at the height of the market, plunging prices have wiped out their equity and then some.

Many of these people haven't lost their jobs and aren't behind on their mortgage payments, so they don't qualify for a loan modification that could shave off big chunks from their monthly housing payments.

"If you bought in the last few years, you're not going to have a lot equity, and you're going to be stuck for a while," said Andy Thielen, a Realtor with Lyon Real Estate's downtown office.

One of the only ways to move with intact credit is to rent out the first house and buy a second, bigger one to live in. But only those owners with enough money for a second down payment can afford to pursue that course.

The forced absence of so many young adults from the homebuying market has eroded demand for move-up houses, a crucial piece of the local real estate economy.

Andrew LePage is an analyst with DataQuick, a San Diego real estate information firm. He said the lack of move-up buyers can easily be detected by looking at what's happened to sales of homes in the $250,000-to-$600,000 range.

In 2006-07, when the local market was near its peak, that segment accounted for 70 percent to 80 percent of all sales in the Sacramento region, according to DataQuick. These days, homes in that price range account for less than 19 percent.

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