41% of New York homeowners qualify for this ‘freedom flyer’ eagle plaque: Do you?

(NEXSTAR) — There are roughly 81.5 million owner-occupied homes in America. Of those, more than 31.3 million — or about 38.5% — do not have a mortgage, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

While something to celebrate today, becoming mortgage-free was once so notable that people would adorn their homes with a symbol to let everyone know they were free of debt.

If you drive around in an older neighborhood or maybe own an older home, you may still find that symbol — a metal eagle — displayed. 

They may be wood, cast iron, bronze, or another darker metal and can be found above garages and front doors alike. Your first thought may be that the eagle is simply patriotic symbolism, considering our national bird is the bald eagle. 

As you may have inferred by now, that answer is about halfway accurate. To better understand the eagle plaques, you have to go back about 70 years. 

An example of a “freedom flyer” eagle you may find on a mortgage-free home. (Getty)

At the time, American soldiers were returning home from World War II. Many would take advantage of the newly signed Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill. Signed into law in 1944, it provides veterans with funds for college, unemployment insurance, and housing. 

Within about a decade of the bill being enacted, 4.3 million home loans had been granted, the Department of Defense explains, and 20% of all new homes built post-World War II were bought by veterans. 

It was also a time of strong patriotism nationwide, which seemingly sparked a tradition among homeowners, Chris Varsek, the lead real estate agent with The Varsek Team in Illinois, told Nexstar. 

As Americans paid off their mortgages, they would hang eagle plaques above their front doors, garages, or other parts of their home, “to signify they were ‘free’ from debt,” he explains. The decor was (and still is) sometimes known as a “freedom flyer.”

“The tradition continued for decades, but the history is a bit murky and [has] mostly been lost to time,” says Varsek.

Nearly 2 in 5 homeowners nationwide are mortgage-free (or eagle-eligible), Census data shows. That’s pretty spot on for the state of New York, where data says 41.1% of the 4.1 million owner-occupied homes do not have a mortgage. That’s about 1.7 million homes that could, in theory, adorn their homes with a “freedom flyer.”

Of the 4 million plus owned homes in New York, about 60% cost more than $300,000. For about a third of people still paying off their homes in New York, their mortgage payment tops $3,000, according to Census data.

The interactive map below shows the percentage of owner-occupied homes that are without a mortgage, according to five-year estimates from the Census’ annual American Community Survey, which occurs more frequently than the actual Census. This data in particular was released in 2022. 

Two states, Colorado and Maryland, and the District of Columbia, have rates below 30%. This may not be much of a surprise: about 70% of householders living in the District of Columbia have moved in since 2010 — 7.5% have moved in since 2021 alone, the highest rate in the U.S. Nationally, about 60% of householders have moved into their residences since 2010, with about 4.7% moving in since 2021.

If you’re among those newer homeowners or are currently home-shopping, it could be a while before you earn your “freedom flyer” eagle.

The average long-term U.S. mortgage rate rose earlier this month for the third time in as many weeks: the average rate on a 30-year mortgage rose to 6.90% from 6.77%, mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said. Borrowing costs on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages, popular with homeowners refinancing their home loans, also rose this week, pushing the average rate to 6.29% from 6.12% last week. A year ago, those rates averaged 6.5% and 5.76%, respectively.

For comparison, in 1955, when the typical home price was around $22,000, the average mortgage rate was around 4%. The last time rates were that low in the U.S. was early 2022. Experts say, however, that 2024 will likely be a better year for homebuyers.

Unfortunately, when you do pay off your mortgage, it’s unlikely anyone will bring a cast iron eagle plaque to your home. You can, however, find them at retailers like Home Depot and Amazon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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