Wausau family's loss of home to foreclosure shows broader housing market struggles

Dec. 27, 2013
Jennifer Wiater looks on as Joe plays a card game with son, Nathan, at their duplex in De Pere. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Joe and Jennifer Wiater put their Wausau home, shown here, on the market two years ago after Joe lost his job. After not receiving a single offer, the couple recently decided to move on and stopped paying their mortgage. They will lose the home in foreclosure early next year. / Submitted photo

About this report

This report is based on Gannett Wisconsin Media analysis of housing data tracked in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The census data covers the three-year period from 2007 to 2009, which overlaps with most of the recession, and the three years following the recession, from 2010 to 2012.
The census data covers the 52 Wisconsin counties with populations of more than 20,000 people. The data can be found online at www.census.gov/acs.


After fighting for nearly two years to keep their more than 110-year-old Wausau home out of foreclosure, Joe and Jennifer Wiater are finally walking away.

The couple, who now live in a De Pere duplex, moved in with family for a spell after Joe was laid off in late 2011 from his retail management job. They have worked multiple jobs to stay afloat ever since. But after not receiving a single offer on their home, they’ve stopped paying their mortgage and will soon lose their home in foreclosure. The Wiaters had bought the home in 2006 for $112,000. They tried to sell it for $105,000 before lowering the price to $99,000.

“We felt like at some point we’ve got to move on,” said Jennifer Wiater, 38. “It was the most difficult decision we’ve ever made. We feel like we’re 20 years old again and starting over.”

While signs point to Wisconsin’s housing market continuing its more than year-long recovery, it will be a much slower climb back for the Wiaters and other families hit hard by the recession.

Recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Wisconsin’s home ownership rate continued to inch downward even after the recession ended, dropping 1.4 percentage points from 2010-2012 — compared to the prior three-year period from 2007-2009.


During that span, at least half of all Wisconsin counties saw a drop in home ownership in the recession’s aftermath, even as home sales and prices rebounded in much of the state.

The census figures come as little surprise to Wisconsin real estate experts, who say the numbers reflect both foreclosures and people who sold their homes under duress during the economic downturn and moved into rentals — or with family — where they’ve remained ever since.

“I haven’t seen any indicators to suggest that people who got foreclosed on are re-entering the market,” said David Clark, an economics professor at Marquette University and a consultant with the Wisconsin Realtors Association. “It’s awfully tough to get a loan within five to six years of a foreclosure.”

Most counties see a drop in home ownership

With many people who lost their homes still trying to find their financial footing, home ownership dipped in most central and eastern Wisconsin counties following the recession.

Some counties — including Outagamie, Calumet, Manitowoc, Portage and Shawano — saw home ownership rates remain flat, while others have seen a more noticeable drop.

In Winnebago County, where home ownership fell 2.1 percentage points, the rental market has become extremely tight, though real estate agents expect to see more renters looking to buy homes as the economy improves.

“We’ll learn soon whether those people in apartments have enough confidence to go forward with a home purchase,” said Scott Roh, sales associate with Coldwell Banker The Real Estate Group in Neenah. “It’s all about consumer confidence and whether or not they feel like they can have confidence in their job tomorrow.”

A few communities bucked the trend, including Adams County in central Wisconsin, where the home ownership rate jumped 3.4 percentage points and now stands at 84.3 percent — highest in the state.

Adolf Pavelec, who owns Pavelec Realty in Adams, said the county’s housing market wasn’t immune to the downturn, though it was aided by a relatively stable job market, with a prison and hospital being among the area’s largest employers. The county also has relatively few rentals, leaving many residents with little choice but to buy a home.

“People who work here, they have to buy, they’re pretty much caught,” Pavelec said.

Home ownership rates in Brown County dropped about 1.2 percentage points to about 66 percent. But in Marinette County, north of Green Bay, home ownership rose a healthy 2.6 percentage points and is nearing 80 percent. Still, real estate experts are confounded by the trend, given the local housing market’s struggles.

According to the Wisconsin Realtors Association, year-over-year home sales were down 9.5 percent in Marinette County through October, while median home sale prices were about even.

“It’s been horrendous,” said Dennis Siem, owner and broker with Coldwell Banker in Marinette. “We used to have 16 agents working here, now we have seven, and none of them are making any money.”

Even as Wisconsin’s home ownership numbers continue to fall, the state’s rate has fared better than the nation as a whole.

About 68 percent of Wisconsin’s housing units were owned, rather than rented, during the 2010-2012 period covered by the census, compared to 64.7 percent nationwide. Hard-hit states, such as Nevada and California, now have home ownership rates at, or near, 55 percent.

“We’re a lot less volatile,” said Clark, the economics professor at Marquette. “We didn’t enjoy the upswing, but then we didn’t crash the way these other areas did.”

Home ownership recovery will take time

By most measures, the state’s housing market has been on the rebound since mid-2011, when year-over-year existing home sales began to rise on a monthly basis, Clark said. But sales have slowed again in recent months.

Meanwhile, average home sale prices began to inch upward in spring 2012 and have continued to recover. According to the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the state’s median home sale price rose 7.5 percent during the first 10 months of 2013, compared to a year ago, to about $144,900.

But that won’t necessarily translate into an uptick in home ownership in the near future, as many of those purchases are coming from investors and existing homeowners who are trading up.

Clark said ever-tightening lending standards continue to keep potential home buyers with marginal credit from getting loans. Meanwhile, people who lost their homes to foreclosure or sold their homes at a steep loss during the recession will likely remain on the sidelines for a while.

Ken King, executive director at Family Service Association in Sheboygan, said that after a foreclosure, people typically need to stay current on their bills and work full time for at least two years before qualifying for a loan again, assuming they’ve also been able to put away money for a down payment during that time.

That’s a tall task for families earning less than they did a few years ago because of job losses, pay cuts or rising insurance premiums.

“I think people are struggling to get to that position,” King said. “People who lost their homes four years ago, they’re not even actively looking to get back into the market at this point.”

Sharyell Highland figures she’s a long way from ever owning a home again like the three-bedroom ranch in Silver Lake in Kenosha County she lost to foreclosure in 2010.

Highland lost her job in 2009 and now operates a furniture resale shop that barely breaks even. Her husband Darrell’s concrete business has struggled enough following the recession that he’s thinking of shutting it down.

The couple, who are in their early 60s, drained their IRA account, sold nearly everything they owned and now live off $819 a month in Social Security income while living in a duplex.

Yet, they haven’t given up hope that they’ll own a home again. The problem is, neither can find a job that pays enough to afford even a modest mortgage.

“You feel ashamed and feel like you’re a failure,” Sharyell Highland said. “I keep hearing how good the economy is, but you couldn’t prove it to me.”

Focused on getting by

Jennifer Wiaters said it will be awhile before her family can reflect on what it has been through.

Her husband now works in retail and makes a fraction of what he did, while she works about 25 hours a week between three part-time jobs and attends graduate school.

They worry about the stress it’s caused to their 6-year-old son, Nathan, who had to say goodbye to his first bedroom and once told his parents he was worried about whether he will need to find a job to help out.

The future is promising for the couple though, as Jennifer Wiater will graduate in 2015 with a school counseling degree, which she hopes will to a more stable and higher-paying job.

Years from now, they hope to once again buy a home, but for now, they’re focused on getting by.

“It’s still kind of traumatic,” Jennifer Wiater said. “We’re just trying to truck along.”

— Josh Lintereur writes for Sheboygan Press Media. He can be reached at 920-453-5147.

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