What mortgage meltdown?

While millions of Americans have suffered the angst of lost homes, equity and pride, nearly a third 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 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.

Figures show 29.3 percent of homeowners nationally — nearly 21 million of them — own their homes outright.

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.

Pittsburgh; Tampa, Fla.; New York; Cleveland; and Miami had the highest percentages of mortgage-free homeowners. Washington, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Denver and Charlotte, N.C., had the lowest.

Areas with lower-priced median home values, not surprisingly, had higher outright ownership rates.

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