In the real estate boom, many homebuyers extended themselves financially to buy a house that may have been beyond their means. With the exuberant market, people were encouraged to buy with low introductory interest rates and interest-only loans, the belief that their income would increase to meet their payments, predictions that real estate prices would never fall. As should have been predicted, adjustable-rate mortgages have adjusted and monthly mortgage payments are higher and income hasn’t increased. More people have fallen behind with their mortgage payments.
With declining home prices and interest-only mortgages, more families owe more on their mortgages than their home is worth. Financially, it could make sense, at least in the short term, to walk away. In this state of negative equity, abandoning the mortgage and the house would actually be financially beneficial.
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Here is why:
If the house you purchased for $400,000 is now worth only $300,000, but thanks to an interest-only mortgage, you still owe $400,000, your net worth increase by $100,000 simply by wiping the mortgage and the house from your balance sheet. Of course, if this is your primary residence, you still need a place to live. But from this point you could buy a more affordable house or rent for a while.
There is a major drawback to abandoning your responsibilities. If you walk away, you will trash your credit rating, making it more difficult or impossible to rent an apartment, qualify for a new mortgage, and perhaps get a job.
Freakonomics addresses this dilemma (if it is a dilemma at all):
My new wife and I bought our home in Temecula, Calif., as a place for us to start a family… We bought the house in early 2007 for $445,000 and put $50,000 down… Now that the market has crashed in our area, our house is worth about $250,000.
Although our monthly mortgage payments are high, we can still afford to make them, but should we? If we walk away and buy another house with my parents cosigning on the loan (or even just rented a place), we could save almost $1,000 a month in payments and maybe even have positive equity in the next few years. If we stay in our home, we’ll be stuck for many years, and if the market ever does get back to what we paid, the best option we’ll have will be to break even with a sale and then buy another house with an inflated value.
I’m certainly concerned about the ethical side of it, and know that walking away is not “the right thing to do.” But my question is from a purely economic perspective and I’d be saving a significant amount of money by lowering my monthly payments and erasing $140,000 in debt.
What should this family do? Are there ethical considerations, or is it simply a question of math? Credit rating aside, the financially responsible option may be to walk away, accept your mistakes, and start over. But if people can simply walk away from their obligations, what incentive is there for people to buy houses they can afford and work hard to continue making payments responsibly?
New laws are now in place to help families facing foreclosure, which should encourage people to choose options other than abandonment. But they may not help every family that finds itself in this predicament. What should they do?
Updated October 15, 2015 and originally published February 20, 2009.