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What mortgage meltdown?

While millions of Americans have suffered the angst of lost homes, equity and pride, nearly 30 percent of the nation’s homeowners have no mortgage at all, according to an estimate released last week by real estate website Zillow.

The free-and-clear class includes, predictably, retirees who have chipped away at their debts for decades, but also a surprisingly high percentage of young people and those who live in relatively affordable regions.

Zillow says 35 percent of homeowners in Erie County are mortgage-free, and in Niagara County, 37 percent. The mortgage-free percentages among the six other Western New York counties are: Cattaraugus, 45 percent; Chautauqua, 42 percent; Genesee, 35 percent; Allegany, 46 percent; Orleans, 36 percent; and Wyoming, 37 percent.

Economists and housing analysts said that Zillow’s estimates are in line with historical norms. But the proportion of these owners is likely to grow as the nation’s baby boomers reach retirement. The fact that they can pay cash when they move will make them increasingly important players in a recovering housing market.

“Those are the people who have the greatest flexibility,” said Svenja Gudell, a senior economist with Zillow.

As the economy picks up, regions with high percentages of free-and-clear owners probably will get a boost. “That means there is a lot more disposable income,” said Celia Chen, a housing economist with Moody’s Economy.com. “That is positive for the local economy.”

Out of the nation’s largest metro areas, Pittsburgh; Tampa, Fla.; New York City; Cleveland; and Miami had the highest percentages of mortgage-free homeowners. Washington, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Denver and Charlotte, N.C., had the lowest. That compares with 29.3 percent nationally – nearly 21 million homeowners.

A big factor in regional variation is median home values, with lower-priced areas not surprisingly having higher outright ownership rates.

Zillow also found that the nation’s most elderly were the most likely to own their homes. One outlier was those homeowners ages 20 to 24. Out of that young demographic, about 34.5 percent owned their homes outright. These homeowners could be young millionaires, those with trust funds or those who received help from their parents.

People who own their homes outright have always been a significant part of the housing market, said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance.

But the recent financial crisis may drive more people toward the financial security of having no house note.

“Clearly that is going to be a growing trend as our population ages,” Cecala said. “The credit crisis has pushed more and more people to think that the best way they can prepare for retirement is with no mortgage at all.”

Delia Fernandez, a certified financial planner in Los Alamitos, Calif., said that even with interest rates so low, those seeking her guidance for retirement often want to pay off debts. And that makes sense, particularly for those nearing retirement.

“The financial argument has always been to borrow other people’s money and invest the rest,” she said.

But “that higher rate of return is not always guaranteed. … In the meantime, as you get closer and closer to retirement, people want to take on less and less risk.”

The Buffalo News contributed to this report.