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HOME EQUITY LINES ARE UPSCALE PRODUCT

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Home equity lines of credit, held by only 8.3 percent of American homeowners, have turned out to be an upscale product.

Households that have these lines of credit typically own "more expensive homes, have higher incomes and have accumulated substantially more equity in their homes than other homeowners," the Federal Reserve said in an analysis of recent studies on the subject.Members of these households also are older and better educated than other homeowners, including those who have a traditional second mortgage.

A survey by the University of Michigan earlier this year found that 16 percent of households with a home valued at $150,000 or above have a home equity line of credit - double the national average.

Similarly, 15 percent of households with incomes of $60,000 or more have home equity lines.

The traditional second mortgage is much less popular with affluent households, probably because it doesn't have the flexibility of a line of credit, which frequently offers interest-only payments for a number of years and calculates the payments anew each month based on how much is owed.

Home equity lines of credit are most popular in Hawaii and New Jersey - 10.1 percent of homeowners in each state have one, according to the Federal Reserve.

By region, home equity lines appeal most to those in the Northeast, where 12 percent of home-owners have them. But the rate of home equity line use more than doubled - from 4 percent to 9 percent - between 1988 and 1994 in both the West and the North Central region. The lines remain rarer in the South, where only 6 percent of households have them.

Oddly enough, a substantial number of households apply for and get a home equity line of credit and then don't use it. The University of Michigan study found that 22 percent of home equity lines have a zero balance and, among those with a zero balance, 60 percent have never used the account.

"Some of these were new account-holders, but many were not," the Federal Reserve said. "The large number of unused accounts suggests that many homeowners who have established lines of credit have done so either to meet anticipated specific needs at some future time or as a standby source of funds."

Among the households using the lines of credit, the median owed is just $10,000, less than half the median amount available - $25,000.

This careful use of funds may account for the very low rate of delinquency that has characterized home equity lines of credit since they became widely available in the the mid-1980s.

The American Bankers Association reports that the rate of delinquency for home equity lines has been less than 1 percent since 1986. By contrast, the delinquency rate on traditional second mortgages has been more than double that in most of the last eight years.

"Several factors may account for the differences," the Federal Reserve said. "As noted, credit line borrowers on average have higher incomes and more equity in their homes than do traditional loan borrowers.

"Also, traditional loan borrowers on average owe more than credit line users. Finally, many line of credit plans have flexible payment schedules.