By Gino Blefari
President & CEO
Intero Real Estate Services, Inc.

Despite the fact that some 11 million homeowners are still underwater on their mortgages, some news out this past week loudly declares that not every homeowner is underwater. In fact, despite the low- to no-equity situation that still exists, a whole lot of homeowners do have equity, and they are taking out home equity lines of credit at a greater rate than in recent years.

A spokesperson at JPMorgan Chase told NBC News that the bank has seen a 31% increase in home equity lines nationally from a year ago. That’s no doubt in part due to a rise in home values.

Home prices were up 8% year-over-year in CoreLogic’s latest report for December. With every increase in value, more underwater homeowners are able to pull their heads above water. For some, this means the freedom to now sell without a loss (and without the complexities of a short sale). For others, it could mean more refinancing options. And now we’re seeing once again that for some homeowners that rise in values means the ability to take out an equity loan.

But rising values aren’t all that’s contributing to this rise in home equity lines of credit. Plain old consumer confidence plays a huge part. Consumers in general are much more confident in their ability to repay these loans – and in the housing market that dictates the value of their homes.

The biggest question the return of home equity lines brings is will this lead to more of the same sort of reckless equity borrowing we saw in bubble days? Homeowners used to think of their equity like an ATM card.  Without thinking twice, owners would cash out to buy a new car or take an extravagant vacation because the market was padding so much value into their homes?

No one can predict, of course. But we’re not likely to see that happen this time around. Why? The simple fact is that we all know the outcome of the first time around. And while home sales and values are gaining steam considerably in many markets across the country, there are still a lot of weak spots in the economy that make us all want to be a bit more conservative.

Figure-wise, homeowners took out a mere $7.2 billion collectively in home equity lines in October, compared to $28 billion in 2006, according to Equifax. And the average home equity line was just below $90,000 last October, compared to just over $100,000 in October 2006.

Consumers in general are much more cautious than they were pre-recession. I don’t think that sentiment is going to fade quickly, if at all.

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