April 2, 2009 at 1:00 am

Leaving Michigan Behind

More might go -- if they could

Region's depressed housing values mean that some can find work elsewhere, but can't afford to leave

Cathy Owens takes in her Pontiac condominium, which sat untouched on the market and caused her to leave a job in Dallas after 10 months. Owens rented a home in Texas while still paying a mortgage on the condo, but eventually gave up, losing the job at an education consulting firm. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Pontiac -- Cathy Owens desperately wants to join the Michigan residents who have fled the state. But the deflating economy that makes her want to leave is the same force that keeps her here.

Flooded with job offers elsewhere but stuck with a condominium worth $50,000 less than she owes, the 37-year-old Pontiac woman is the mirror image of Michigan's almost half-million recession refugees -- an economic prisoner with no chance for parole anytime soon.

"It's one thing to not be able to find a job," said Owens, an education consultant. "It's another to have to turn down great opportunities because you can't sell your house."

As bad as Michigan's exodus has become, it could be even worse if thousands of frustrated homeowners like Owens could leave. Residents trying to escape Michigan's hard times today are finding their path to the border more difficult than those who left in recent years. Jobs in other states, plentiful through much of Michigan's recession, are drying up. And those who find jobs elsewhere often struggle to sell their Michigan homes.

About 109,000 more people left Michigan in 2008 than moved in, quadruple the number from the beginning of the decade. Dana Johnson, senior vice president and chief economist for Comerica Bank, says that number represents only a portion of the people who want to leave.

"A lot of people who'd like to pull up stakes and try to start someplace else don't want to take the hit to the equity on their houses and are instead waiting it out for a while," Johnson said.

Owens accepted a job with a Dallas education consulting firm in 2006, which originally allowed her to telecommute from Michigan.

"In March (2007), they asked me to move to Dallas," Owens said. "I bought my condo for $175,000 and still owed $150,000, and three condos in my neighborhood had just sold for $90,000. The Realtor said price it at $100,000 or forget it."

Owens moved to Dallas for 10 months, paying a mortgage in Michigan and rent in Texas, before giving up and moving back. She kept her condo, but lost her job.

She now drives 90 miles each day to a consulting job in Lansing. "I could take my pick where I wanted to live and work," Owens said. "I could work as a teacher, a principal or a consultant. I have contacts in Atlanta, D.C., New Jersey. People are offering me jobs everywhere. But nobody wants to buy this house from me in Michigan. I'm stuck here with the market in the toilet."

There were twice as many houses on the market in Metro Detroit in January 2009 (53,815) than there were in January 2005 (26,983), while the median sale price has plummeted by two-thirds, from $156,000 in January 2005 to $47,000 in January 2009, according to RealComp.

Ironically, an improved economy and a rebounding housing market could, in the short run, increase outmigration, because of the pent-up demand to leave. "There might be a phantom supply of houses out there (for sale), people who will put their homes back on the market when things stabilize," Johnson said.

Mike and Elizabeth O'Donnell won't be among those waiting.

The Clarkston couple hung on as long as they could in Michigan, waiting for their home to sell. In March, they decided the risk of staying put was greater than the risk of moving with their house still unsold.

They're renting a home in Williamsburg, Va., where they've started a home restoration company.

Staying in Michigan was "like having a wound that you keep picking at and it keeps getting worse," Elizabeth O'Donnell said. "We just couldn't hack it anymore."

For them, moving with their Clarkston home still unsold means possible bankruptcy. For those left behind, it means one more house on the market at a fire sale price, driving down prices for the next person trying to move out of Michigan.

"Everybody's in the same boat," Elizabeth O'Donnell said. "The whole thing is overwhelming."

Mike and Elizabeth O'Donnell pack up their home recently, ready for a ... (Charles V. Tines The Detroit News)