Americans own a lower percentage of their homes than in the past, increasing risk

By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - So much for the American dream.

As more and more people have rushed to be homeowners, they actually own less of their homes than they have in decades...adding another risk factor to the overheated real estate market. On average, homeowners have 56.3 percent equity in their homes, according to Demos, a public-interest research group. In 1973, equity averaged 68.3 percent; in the 1950s, it was upwards of 80 percent.

Two main factors are at work:

Homeowners are starting off further behind. In the past, the standard downpayment was 20 percent. A 2003 National Association of Realtors survey reported than less than half of all home buyers now put that much down; many obtain 100 percent, even 103 percent, financing.

Homeowners are yanking out cash. From 2001 through 2004, Americans took $330 billion in equity out of their homes, according Freddie Mac. In 2005 alone, they'll pull out as much as $160 billion.

Demos's senior research associate and author of A House of Cards: Refinancing the American Dream, Javier Silva, said that, even in the absence of a real estate crash, many families "are facing a financial crisis," partially because they've taken on more mortgage debt. Already, the average American's financial obligations ratio (FOR) -- all your regular bills you must pay each month compared with income -- has expanded to 18.45 percent. That's up from about 15.5 percent in the early 1980s, and among the highest since the Federal Reserve began calculating the statistic.