Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore the changing role of housing wealth from an investment vehicle to a welfare resource. It also considers the implications of economic prosperity and decline in the UK on homeowners, intentions of equity withdrawal, and the consequences of managing household budgets. Design/methodology/approach – The paper takes the form of a quantitative longitudinal analysis of national data and panel survey, including random effects logistic regression model. Findings – Housing wealth is increasingly being used as a financial safety net across the life course. Homeowners are equally likely to have engaged in equity-borrowing episodes during periods of economic prosperity as they are during periods of decline; particularly, lone parents with non-dependent children and unemployed people. Housing tends to be used as a last resort once other forms of credit have been exhausted. Research limitations/implications – There are data constraints; equity withdrawal can only be calculated from 1994 and the latest wave of data available is 2008. The research is not therefore able to consider the full extent of the consequences of the current recession, however, it does provide an indication of the problems that may emerge. Social implications – Social implications arise from the concentration of resources into housing wealth; homeowners may suffer through having increased debt and there are implications for financial and sustainable welfare policy where home ownership is positioned as a nation's welfare resource. Originality/value – The paper draws upon the author's recent work (in collaboration with others) which offers insights into the motivations for equity borrowing. This paper offers an original contribution through presenting empirical evidence on the effect of economic prosperity and economic decline on household behaviour, and adds new insights in respect of the implications for households who rely on housing wealth in the context of the current recession.