Brent T. White, a law professor at the University of Arizona, has a provocative new study out, “Underwater and Not Walking Away.” He points out that as many as 32 percent of all homeowners are 'underwater' on their mortgages – they owe more money than their houses are worth. The media has produced a series of articles decrying homeowners who simply stop paying on these 'upside down' mortgages as irresponsible and even obscene. In fact, White notes, less than three percent of people whose primary residences are foreclosed on are people who could have continued to pay their mortgages. There are no discernible difference in foreclosure rates in places where housing prices have dropped steeply. Rather, foreclosure rates closely track unemployment rates, suggesting that it's generally people who lose their jobs and are no longer able to pay their mortgages who lose their homes to foreclosure.
This is true even when it would make more financial sense for people to walk away. Nationwide, housing prices have dropped 30 percent since their peak in 2006; in some cities, drops have been much steeper. Parts of California, for example, have seen drops of 65%. The result is that many people could pay rent on a new house at only a fraction of their monthly mortgage. Homeowners in this situation could save tens of thousands of dollars by walking away. So why don't more of them do so?
Emotions of fear, guilt and shame come together to encourage people to act against their own self-interests, White argues. There's a concerted message being put out not only by the banking industry, but also by the government, the media and even non profit consumer counseling agencies that 'good people' live up to their responsibilities and don't walk away from their obligations. That message is allowing the banking industry to shift not only the responsibility, but also the consequences, of the housing crisis entirely onto the shoulders of homeowners.
Certainly there are some negative consequences to society of walking away – foreclosures tend to cluster in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with a large number of foreclosed homes often become run down and dangerous. But what about the consequences to society of staying and struggling to pay these huge mortgages? Doesn't that empower a banking industry that made poor decisions and led the economy into this trap?
White points out that in a stable housing market, a house should be about 15 to 16 times the price of a year's worth of rent. In some markets, the average mortgage being written was 38 times the price of a year's rent. Shouldn't the bankers, experts in housing prices, be held to some account for writing these kinds of mortgages and letting housing prices get out of control?
The guilt, shame and fear that White writes about seems to apply only to consumers. We see this echoed in the way people think about credit card debt and bankruptcy. When consumers are unable to pay their debts, they are somehow shirking their responsibilities; when banks can't pay what they owe, they find themselves 'undercapitalized.'
This isn't to say that financial irresponsibility should be more acceptable. However, maybe we need to rethink the way we hold consumers to a higher moral standard than lenders, and instead force the same financial accountability on all parties.
If you're considering letting your house go, protect yourself from deficiency liability by filing for bankruptcy. For more information, visit our website www.billsbills.com and call to set up your free initial debt consultation. Serving North Carolina families since 1995, the Law Offices of John T. Orcutt.