Middle Class Didn't Lose as Much Wealth as Thought, Scott Winship of Brookings Institution Says

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middle class wealthAmericans are richer than they might think, though it may not seem like it.

The Census Bureau recently released data that indicated a drop of more than 35 percent in median household wealth between 2005 and 2010, while the Federal Reserve released a survey weeks ago that found that median net worth plummeted by 39 percent from 2007 to 2010.

The reports paint a grim picture of the state of the middle class, but the degree of the wealth decline that they suggest, when taken in context, may not be close to as bad as it seems.

That's because wealth levels in the early- and mid-2000s were largely "illusory" and based on a false belief, some experts say, that Americans' homes were actually worth their housing-boom values.

"The bursting of the bubble exposed the wealth gains as having been unreal and produced the sizable declines in net worth revealed in the government data," wrote Scott Winship, a fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, in a recent opinion piece titled "Middle Class Wealth: It's Not as Bad as It Looks."

A cascade of foreclosures and an excessive supply of homes -- which are both symptoms of a manic housing market once wedded to the notion that home prices would never fall -- have pushed down home values by more than a third. The severe drop in prices, many argue, suggests that homes never should have been considered as valuable as they were.

If you ignore home values, middle-class household wealth has flat-lined since the 1980s, according to data from the Fed and the Census Bureau.

While it's not music to anyone's ears that average Americans are perhaps no richer than they were 25 years ago, the fact that we are not much poorer might also seem a wonder to some. After all, the country just weathered the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression.

The idea that the "golden years" of the 1950s, when the post-World War II economy steamed full-speed ahead, were the halcyon days of America's middle class is a myth.

At least, if prosperity is measured by wealth, median household wealth is 15 percent higher than it was in 1970, according to Winship, and median income has doubled since 1960.

"A lot of people will say the 2000s were a lost decade," Winship told AOL Real Estate. "But it's still the case that, because of all the growth that preceded it, we're just much better off than we were during the golden age."

Current estimates also may low-ball household wealth because they do not count senior entitlements, including Social Security and Medicare, which have grown more generous over the years. Federal Reserve Board research shows that if they were included, median net worth for adults under age 65 in 2010 would have been at least four times higher than wealth estimates based on the standard definitions of net worth used by the Census Bureau and the Fed, Winship said.

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Middle Class Didn't Lose as Much Wealth as Thought, Scott Winship of Brookings Institution Says

Current price: $310,000
Peak sale price: $610,000 (Oct. 2005)
Beds/baths: 5/3.5
Square feet: 4,198

In the past several months, many small- to mid-size homes have sold in the Phoenix area, freeing up sellers who wanted to trade up, explained Marci Burgoyne, a broker with Crown Key Homes in Phoenix.

And many are finding huge bargains. This Spanish Colonial last sold in late 2005 for $610,000. The current asking price is almost half that.

Inside the home, there are five bedrooms (all with walk-in closets), an expansive foyer, vaulted ceilings, tiled floors, balconies and an up-to-date kitchen.

Outside, there are fruit trees, an automatic watering system and a swimming pool. And the garage has room for four cars.

Current price: $396,000
Peak sale price: $990,000 (Sept. 2007)
Beds/baths: 5/3
Square feet: 4,304

It's not every day you get to buy a place with its own pond, or an acre of land in Pinellas County, Fla., for under $400,000, for that matter. But this huge place -- just a 24-mile drive from Tampa -- offers both.

According to listing agent John Rurkowski, it's a rarity. "We just don't make land like that in Pinellas County," he said.

Located within walking distance from Lake Seminole State Park, it's now being offered at a 60 percent discount to its sale price of $990,000 five years ago.

Among the amenities: a two-story entryway, a great room with a sweeping staircase, a swimming pool, plenty of outdoor entertaining spaces and a master suite with a fireplace and den.

According to Rurkowski, deals like this may not last long. The local market for large homes is gaining steam, he said. During the two months through April, home prices on all types of homes in the Tampa-metro area were on the rise, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index.

Current price: $260,000
Peak sale price: $435,665 (Feb. 2005)
Beds/baths: 4/3.5
Square feet: 4,036

Until recently, smaller homes were pretty much the only real estate selling in the greater St. Louis area, according to real estate agent Lucinda Seymour.

Now, she said, "There are buyers at all price points. Buyers are finally feeling more optimistic."

Demand for homes like this one has picked up, she said.

Located in a residential community just 20 miles south of St. Louis, the four-bedroom home has a huge great room with a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a community lake. The big kitchen boasts a center island, double-oven and breakfast room.

The home is being sold in a short sale, however. And it's being sold "as-is," meaning the current owner won't be making any repairs for the buyers.

Current price: $250,000
Peak sale price: $576,000 (Aug. 2009)
Beds/baths: 4/3.5
Square feet: 4,063

For the past several years, Las Vegas has been the poster child for the foreclosure mess, but recently the market has started to stabilize and demand for homes has been on the upswing.

That has opened up the market for existing homeowners to sell their homes and trade up to bigger ones, said Bill Jenkins, an agent with Keller Williams Realty. And many of them are taking advantage of the deep discounts in the area to get the home of their dreams.

This house, which was built in 2007, is in "immaculate condition," he said and selling at 57  percent discount to its last sale price three years ago. It features a columned portico, a balcony and an attached three-car garage. Inside, there's a large kitchen with hardwood cabinets, granite countertops, tile floors and lots of built-ins.

Current price: $350,000
Peak sale price: $550,000 (May 2009)
Beds/baths: 5/4
Square feet: 5,936

In early 2005, this huge, modern house had an estimated value of more than $1 million, according to real estate web site Zillow. The value had dropped to $550,000 when it sold three years ago. Now it's being sold for almost half that price.

Part of that price cut reflects the collapse in home prices in the Cape Coral/Fort Myers metro area, but part of it is due to the fact that this home is in need of some serious TLC.

The 6,000-square-foot home, which is being sold in a short sale, was damaged and stripped by a previous occupant.

Those willing to put in some elbow grease will get plenty of space and amenities in return, including five bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, in which there are two Jacuzzi tubs and three saunas. Outside is a huge pool.

Aaron Eyerman of Blue Water Realty said he has seen a pick-up in demand for larger homes in the area. "On our website, we've definitely noticed a surge in interest in four-bedroom homes and up," he said. "[P]eople figure 'Why not get more for your money.'"

Current price: $299,000
Peak sale price: $569,000 (March 2006)
Beds/baths: 5/3
Square feet: 4,304

Miami's once beaten-down market is starting to make a comeback. And those looking for the really big deals will have to act fast.

"While there are still some real bargains in the area, it's no longer a buyer's market," said listing agent Justin Willard.

Willard has already fielded more than 10 bids on this 4,300-square-foot Mediterranean-style home since it went on the market in mid-June.

It offers tile floors, a large backyard, a basketball court, a swimming pool and a three-car garage.

Whoever buys the place will likely feel pretty good about the price tag: The home is selling for a fraction of what it last sold for in March 2006.

Current price: $310,000
Peak sale price: $659,000 (Feb. 2007)
Beds/baths: 6/4.5
Square feet: 4,065

Located in a suburb 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles, this 4,000-square-foot home has lost more than half of its value since it was last purchased in February 2007.

But big houses like this may not stay this cheap for long. Demand for big homes is picking up in the area and there isn't a lot of supply, said agent Richard Knapp.

"There are 30 buyers for every house," he said.

This home is nicely appointed with plantation shutters, a fireplace and an open floor plan. It has a three-car garage and even has parking for an RV. Knapp said there's shopping, medical facilities and parks close by.

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