When to walk away from a bad mortgage

Since the housing bubble burst, many Americans have found their finances underwater. They're paying on homes that are worth much less than the mortgages against them. More than a few have chosen to walk away from these debts.

Called a “walkaway” or a “strategic default”, deliberately defaulting on your mortgage is becoming more common as the real-estate market continues to struggle. Some experts believe that as many as 20% of homes currently in foreclosure are the result of walkaways: people who had the means to pay their mortgage but chose not to when their life circumstances changed and they found their homes unsellable.

Businesses walk away from bad investments and debts like this all the time, but for an individual to do it takes guts. There's a huge stigma associated with walking out on your mortgage. Americans feel that there's something morally wrong with not paying your debts, even when those debts are astronomical or unfair.

As Matt Taibbi puts it in his new book Griftopia:

When you meet people who are losing their homes in this foreclosure crisis, they almost all have the same look of deep shame and anguish. Nowhere else on the planet is it such a crime to be down on your luck, even if you were put there by some of the world's richest banks, which continue to rake in record profits purely because they got a big fat handout from the government.

That's why one banker CEO after another keeps going on TV to explain that despite their own deceptive loans and fraudulent paperwork, the real problem is these deadbeat homeowners who won't pay their…bills. And that's why most people in this country are so ready to buy that explanation. Because in America, it's far more shameful to owe money than it is to steal it.

Whether or not you agree with Taibbi's take on the mortgage crisis, you've surely seen that look of shame on the face of anyone you know who's lost a home to foreclosure. Despite of the social pressure to keep making payments, though, thousands of borrowers are defaulting. The rate of walkaways went from virtually nothing in 2007 to nearly a fifth of foreclosures today. That's a huge increase.

What Happens When You Walk Away From a Mortgage?

Given how many homes are underwater these days, it's probably not surprising that I have a friend who is considering walking out on his mortgage. I get asked for financial help or advice a lot since I started this gig at GRS, but I was clueless on this one. Some quick math revealed that continuing to pay his mortgage makes no financial sense for my friend: The house is worth much less than he owes. He can't sell it. He no longer lives there; it's just an albatross around his financial neck.

Still, I thought my friend must have other options, so I called up mortgage expert Keith Gumbinger at HSH.com. Gumbinger had some great suggestions for what to do when you're facing overwhelming mortgage debt.

Gumbinger agreed that bailing out of a mortgage sometimes makes good financial sense — but the consequences for doing so are steep. “You can certainly walk away and let it go to involuntary foreclosure,” Gumbinger said. “That's your ultimate hammer. But there are consequences in the rest of your life.” Walking away from a mortgage should be the absolute last resort.

Walkaways face some serious issues:

  • Your credit will plummet, making it tougher to get anything from a rental apartment to car insurance.
  • You'll be stonewalled by the mortgage industry for seven years.
  • The mortgage company can come after you for the money they lose on your property when they're forced to sell it below market value as a foreclosure. That's the bad debt you were trying to walk away from, coming back to haunt you.

Before walking out on a mortgage, Gumbinger says you should call your mortgage company. Lenders don't want you to default on your loan — and stick them with an unwanted house — any more than you want to destroy your credit. They'll talk to you.

“You should be able to get a reasonable response,” Gumbinger said. This far into the mortgage crisis, most lenders have experienced staff people who do nothing but negotiate loan modifications, short sales, and planned foreclosures with their borrowers. They have clear processes to handle this type of situation. It won't be fun, but if you stay engaged, you stand to get out of your mortgage with your credit in better shape than a foreclosure would leave it.

Gumbinger warns to carefully document the entire process. Keep notes of who you talked to, and get agreements in writing.

Loan Modifications and Short Sales

Before you call your lender, decide what outcome you're after. If you're looking to keep the property but can't keep up with the payments, call and talk to your bank about a loan modification. There are federal and private programs to help troubled borrowers get their mortgages adjusted. You may qualify to have your mortgage interest rate reduced as low as 2%, or to have some measure of your debt forgiven so that your monthly payments don't exceed 31% of your income.

If you're ready to walk away from the mortgage entirely and don't want to keep the house, talk to your lender about a short sale. In a short sale, you agree to retain possession of the property, keep it in good shape, and sell it on the bank's behalf. With the bank, you agree on a sale price that reflects the current fair market value of the property, even if that's much less than what you owe on it.

Note: You probably want an attorney to help you with these negotiations.

Usually, a short sale agreement will have a two- to three-month time limit. After that, you and the bank can negotiate a “planned foreclosure” or “deed in lieu”. Instead of simply walking away and forcing the bank to take costly legal steps to repossess your home, you can give it to them. In exchange for saving them the hassle of taking it, they'll go easy on you with the legal and financial consequences. Again, use an attorney to negotiate this on your behalf.

Any of these options should bring you a happier ending than simply mailing the bank your keys without a word.

“Because you've tried to do the right thing, it does preserve to a greater degree your opportunity to participate in the housing market in the near future,” Gumbinger said. Your credit will still take a hit, but if you do a short sale or planned foreclosure, you may be able to buy another house in two to four years. If you even want to. After being burned by the housing market, many people are happy to become permanent renters.

More about...Debt, Economics, Home & Garden

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