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Stake in homes is 40% of Americans' personal wealth

The old aphorism says, ''There's no place like home.'' A new survey of the personal wealth of American households agrees. It finds that the equity that people have in their own homes constitutes the largest element in their overall wealth. The latest data show home equity accounts for about two-fifths of all recorded personal wealth.

Less than one-third of such wealth consists of financial assets, such as checking and savings accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks, bonds, and so on.

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Most of the rest is in unincorporated or closely held businesses or farms, and in rental properties and other real estate.

These are the preliminary results, only now available, of a 1979 survey by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The last such survey of wealth, taken by the Federal Reserve Board, was done at the close of 1962. There have been some changes since then. Americans have altered the structure of their wealth, partly by conscious decision, partly through events.

These changes were reported recently in a paper by Robert B. Pearl and Mrs. Matilda Frankel, both of the Survey Research Laboratory, University of Illinois. The two caution repeatedly that the results of the so-called Income Survey Development Program are inexact, subject to various survey errors. But the sample consisted of some 11,300 households and provides the latest and best current data on how Americans have invested their money.

The principal change, they report, is the increase in the relative importance of home equity, from 29.8 percent to 39.4 percent. Moreover, some 64 percent of households owned their home in the latest survey, compared with 57 percent two decades earlier.

This rise in home ownership (including condominiums), plus the spectacular uptrend in property values, accounts for the shift, the authors reckon.

Over the same period, financial assets -- which had previously been the principal repository of wealth -- fell just about the same amount, from 38 percent to 30 percent.

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Within the financial composite, there were also some shifts. Securities other than corporate shares became more important. These would include certificates of deposit, money market funds, and mortgages and other loans to people outside the household, etc. Opportunities for this kind of investment, the two note, are ''more diversified and attractive.''

As might be expected, there appears to be some dropoff over the two decades in low-yield holdings, such as checking and savings accounts and savings bonds. That occurred despite a rise in the proportion of households reporting such assets.

The principal offset to the increase in home equity, however, was the decline in the relative standing of corporate stocks (including those in mutual funds). They fell from 20 percent to 11 percent of total household wealth, and from some 51 percent to 37 percent of the financial portfolio. ''The lag in stock prices behind inflation during much of this period was probably the main cause of this drop,'' the two note. About 16 percent of households owned stock in 1962, according to this survey, and 20 percent in 1979.

The importance of business and farm equities also seems to have dropped slightly. That, Mr. Pearl and Mrs. Frankel suggest, is probably in part because of the long-term decline in private farming operations.

The composition of personal wealth holdings tends to vary according to an individual's wealth and age. Nonetheless, home equity was the dominant factor in asset portfolios among ''nearly all major demographic and socioeconomic groups in the population,'' the authors say. Only for the very wealthy and older people were financial investments of roughly equivalent or greater importance.

Wealth, as might be expected, tends to move up with an individual's income level. It is easier to save money for investment. Financial investments, as against home equity, also assume a greater importance as income rises. Those in the top 4 percent of incomes ($4,000 or more in the latest month) had only 21 percent of their wealth in home equity and some 38 percent in financial assets. Those in the less than $900 income level had 45.4 percent of their assets in their home and only 20 percent in financial instruments.

Small and relatively liquid assets, such as checking and savings accounts and savings bonds, constitute about half the financial asset total for the less affluent. But they are only a fifth of the aggregate for upper-income households. The well-to-do put more of their money in certificates of deposit, corporate stocks, and similar investments.

A look at the same survey statistics by Daniel B. Radner, a researcher with the Social Security Administration, found a related fact: About half of all households had less than $1,000 in financial assets (excluding home equity). Only one-tenth had financial assets of more than $5,000.

The low amount of liquid assets held by most households means that it is tough for these families or other groupings to weather economic problems such as unemployment, sickness, or the like.

Where Americans put their wealth (percent of total wealth) 1979 1962 Equity in own home 39.4% 29.8% Equity in automobiles 3.7 3.4 Financial assets: Checking accounts or cash 1.4 2.2 Savings accounts 6.2 9.5 Savings bonds 1.0 2.4 CDs, bonds, loans 10.5 4.4 Stocks, stock mutual funds 11.3 19.6 Total financial assets 30.3 38.1 Equity in rental property 8.9 8.3 Equity in own business, farm 17.6 20.5 Sources: 1979 Income Survey Development Program and 1963 Federal Reserve Board survey of financial characteristics of consumers.