The Housing Chronicles Blog: Mortgage payment re-setting? Walking away becoming more prevalent

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mortgage payment re-setting? Walking away becoming more prevalent

One wonders what will happen to housing values if the trend of simply walking away from mortgages that are rising while prices fall becomes more commonplace. Ironically, one culprit contributing to this trend could be the federal government, which enacted the Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007 so the IRS wouldn't count forgiven debt -- such as in a short sale or a foreclosure -- as income. California recently followed suit with a similar bill that would temporarily suspend income taxes on the same types of forgiven debt. According to a CNNMoney story, however, such laws are only making it easier to borrowers to simply walk away:

Homeowners are abandoning their homes and, more importantly, their mortgages, rather than trying to keep up with rising payments on deteriorating assets. So many people are handing their keys back to lenders that a new term has been coined for it: jingle mail...

Current lending practices have created an environment where a measure as extreme as abandoning a home actually makes sense to some people.

Many buyers put little or no money down, so they don't have much invested in them. That leaves them with little incentive to keep making payments when a home's market value dips below the balance of the mortgage.

Moreover, credit scores can recover much faster after a foreclosure -- in as little as two years -- assuming the borrower keeps a squeaky clean record:

The most serious consequence is a tremendous hit to credit scores. For some, that's better than throwing away money they'll never recover by selling their home.

And while a mortgage default can savage a person's credit record, trying to pay off a loan they can't afford could be worse for borrowers if it leads to bankruptcy, said Craig Watts, a spokesman for the credit reporting firm Fair Isaac.

Credit scores are hurt much more by missing multiple payments - on credit cards, cars and so on - than by a single foreclosure.

"The time it takes to regain your credit score [after foreclosure] can be shorter than after bankruptcy," said Watts.

It typically takes three years of a spotless payment record after a bankruptcy before credit scores recover enough for someone to think about buying a home again, he said. After abandoning a mortgage, a person may be able to buy a new house in two years or less.

And of course many borrowers are probably taking advantage of the laws which grant temporary tax amnesty to that forgiven debt:

And now skipping out on a home is easier, thanks to the Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007. Previously, if a bank sold a foreclosed home for less than the mortgage balance and it forgave the difference, the borrower had to pay tax on that difference as if it were income. Now the IRS will ignore it...

Lenders are afraid that borrowers may find it's worth the hit to their credit scores, if they can drastically reduce their housing expenses. Someone with good credit and a $600,000 home in a town with cratering real estate prices could buy a similar house nearby for $450,000, and then let the other $600,000 mortgage go into foreclosure.

The stage is set for this kind of thing particularly in California, where huge numbers of buyers used low or no-down deals to buy homes. The trend has even spawned at least one new business, San Diego-based, which for a fee of $1,000 purports to guide clients through the process of ditching their mortgages. It launched in early January, and says it has already signed up 180 clients.

California is a bit of a safe haven for these borrowers, since banks that repossess and then sell a foreclosed property for less than the mortgage that was owed on it cannot come after borrowers for the difference - as long as it's the initial mortgage, one that has not been refinanced. So if a borrower owes $200,000 and the bank sells the house for $170,000, the borrower comes out of it debt-free.

And for many homeowners, the prospect of becoming debt-free is growing increasingly alluring.

So who pays for the consequences of others' bad decisions. Why the taxpayer, of course -- as usual.

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