Five million US homeowners are still living with the fallout from the real estate bust that triggered the epic downturn. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

EAST STROUDSBURG - School bus driver Michael Payne was renting an apartment on the 30th floor of a New York City high-rise, where the landlord’s idea of fixing broken windows was to cover them with boards.

So when Payne and his wife Gail saw ads in the tabloids for brand-new houses in the Pennsylvania mountains for under $200 000 (R2.9 million), they saw an escape. The middle-aged couple took out a mortgage on a $168 000, four-bedroom home in a gated community with swimming pools, tennis courts and a clubhouse. 

“It was going for the American Dream,” Payne, now 61, said recently as he sat in his living room. “We felt rich.”

Today the powder-blue split-level is worth less than half of what they paid for it 12 years ago at the peak of the nation’s housing bubble.

Located about 80 miles northwest of New York City in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, their home resides in one of the sickest real estate markets in the United States, according to a Reuters analysis of data provided by a leading realty tracking firm. More than one-quarter of homeowners in Monroe County are deeply “underwater,” meaning they still owe more to their lenders than their houses are worth.

The world has moved on from the global financial crisis. Hard-hit areas such as Las Vegas and the Rust Belt cities of Pittsburgh and Cleveland have seen their fortunes improve.

But the Paynes and about 5.1 million other US homeowners are still living with the fallout from the real estate bust that triggered the epic downturn.

As of June 30, nearly one in 10 American homes with mortgages were “seriously” underwater, according to Irvine, California-based ATTOM Data Solutions, meaning that their market values were at least 25 percent lower than the balance remaining on their mortgages.

It is an improvement from 2012, when average prices hit bottom and properties with severe negative equity topped out at 29 percent, or 12.8 million homes. Still, it is double the rate considered healthy by real estate analysts.

“These are the housing markets that the recovery forgot,” said Daren Blomquist, a senior vice president at ATTOM.

Lingering pain from the crash is deep. But it has fallen disproportionately on commuter towns and distant exurbs in the eastern half of the United States, a Reuters analysis of county real estate data shows. Among the hardest hit are bedroom communities in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions, where income and job growth have been weaker than the national norm.

-REUTERS