Service members grapple with housing market

May 22, 2011 - 3:14 PM

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Ballek thought the four-bedroom house bordered by sage bushes and mountain roads on the edge of Las Vegas was a good deal when he purchased it for his growing family in 2007. Nevada's skyrocketing home prices had dipped slightly that year, and the so-called experts all assured him he was getting in at the bottom of the market.

Property values continued to fall, however, and next month Ballek expects to sell his family's home for less than what he owes on it. He doesn't have much of a choice. Like thousands of service members, Ballek is moving across the nation this summer per the military's order.

"How can you feel?" Ballek said. "It's frustrating."

Depressed property values have become a national crisis for homeowners who purchased their houses before the collapse of the housing market. But for members of the military who must comply with relocation orders or face disciplinary action, waiting out the housing crash is often not an option.

In many ways, military homeowners have no one to blame but themselves.

Service men and women begin every assignment with the knowledge that they could be relocated at any point, and will likely be moved within five years. The Department of Defense encourages military employees to rent, not buy.

Nevertheless, buying a home is common practice among military members.

In good years, they purchased properties with the intent of turning them for profit, saving them for retirement or renting them out as an investment.

For some, homeownership was a way to provide their family with a temporary feel of permanency, a home where they could paint their bedroom walls and host holiday parties.

"People want to think about the future, where they are going to put down roots," said Steve Strobridge, government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America. "If you only rent, I think there is a sense among military people that when you retire maybe you will be behind the power curve in terms of your financial future."

Marine Lt. Col. David Berke purchased a home outside of Las Vegas when he was relocated to work at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas in 2008. He felt certain that the bubble had burst and that the housing market was on the brink of recovery.

Nevada's median home price jumped from $150,000 to $300,000 between 2000 and 2007, according to a University of Nevada, Las Vegas study. The crash came in 2008, when unemployment reached 7 percent for the first time during that decade. Nevada now tops the nations in foreclosures and unemployment.

Berke, 38, is married with two daughters. He plans to rent his house after he is relocated to Florida this year. The house is worth too little to sell it.

"The amount of money we would lose on the home was just not something we could afford," he said. "I don't have a waterfall in my backyard. I don't have a helicopter pad on my roof. It is just a normal, traditional Las Vegas home."

The Department of Defense and Congress have tried to ease the concerns of military homeowners. Military members forced to move became eligible for a mortgage assistance program in 2009. The program, however, is overwhelmed with requests and faces a $400 million budget deficit by the end of this year.

A proposed $553 billion defense bill passed by the House's Armed Services Committee this month directs the defense department to consider broadening the eligibility requirements of the program. The House is expected to vote on the legislation Tuesday.

Only military personnel who purchased property before July 2006 and were required to permanently relocate between that year and September 2010 qualify for assistance. More than 5,000 service members have applied for help under the program since 2009.

Applicants deemed eligible can sell their home to the federal government or qualify for other compensation.

"We've heard from service members from across the nation who are under water and they are not sure what they are going to do," said Katie Savant, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. "Military families are being caught in this situation where they can't afford to sell their home but they have orders to relocate."

Some leave their families behind in the house and rent an apartment in their new city, Savant said. Most give up the property or rent it, she said.

Savant, who is married to a Marine in Virginia, rents.

Demands for help are especially high in Nevada, California and Florida, the states hardest hit by the housing collapse.

Nearly 14 percent of the military personnel at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas are dealing with devalued property, including more than 700 airmen who are upside down on their mortgages, according to a recent survey. Of those who have received relocation orders, 263 have been unable to sell their homes at a break-even price.

"This is not someone who has the option to wait 10 years until their home values come up," said Republican Rep. Joe Heck of southern Nevada, who commissioned the Nellis study and has called on the Department of Defense to expand the housing assistance program. "You don't get choices when you are an active-duty military member. They are not asking you to move. You have to, or you are disobeying a lawful order."

Walking away from the house is also not a viable option. A foreclosure or any other financial blemish can cost military personnel their security clearance.

Ballek, 39, has lived in 10 different cities since he joined the military when he was 18. He was deployed four times to the Persian Gulf region since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001.

Last year, he was told he would have to move to Washington D.C. in August. He'll rent a home once he gets there.

He doesn't want to purchase property again, he said, until after he retires from the military.