- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2009

Scott Conroy pays the mortgage every month on his one-bedroom condo in San Diego, even though it’s worth 33 percent less than what he owes and it may take more than a decade to break even.

Homeowners like Mr. Conroy who can afford their monthly payments are weighing whether to sell and pay the difference, stick it out until housing prices recover, or walk away.

In the United States, 26 percent of borrowers owe more than their home is worth, said Karen Weaver, global head of securitization research for New York-based Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. In parts of California, Florida and Nevada, it’s as high as 75 percent.

So-called strategic defaults, in which homeowners stop paying their mortgages while remaining current on other debts, rose 128 percent to 588,000 last year, according to Experian PLC, a Dublin-based credit-checking company, and Oliver Wyman, a New York-based consulting firm. Two-thirds of those who walked away defaulted on their primary residences.

“You’re looking at an extremely long horizon in order to see a return of home values to where they were at their peak,” said Stan Humphries, chief economist for Zillow.com, the Seattle-based real estate data service. “It could be 15 to 20 years in some markets.”

Strategic defaulters represent about 4 percent of all homeowners underwater. That trickle could become a flood as the likelihood recedes that home prices will soon return to their peak values, said Rick Sharga, senior vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac Inc., an online seller of real estate data.

In San Diego, where Mr. Conroy lives, home values are down about 40 percent since March 2006 when he bought his place, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Index of 20 U.S. metropolitan areas. Prices have rebounded for three consecutive months, returning to the October 2002 level, before the start of the housing boom. Nationwide, home values are what they were in September 2003, according to the Case-Shiller index as of July.

“You have to ask yourself: Are you just renting the home from the bank?” said Michael Joe, a foreclosure expert at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. “Would it be cheaper to walk away and rent across the street?”

Mr. Conroy, 32, and his wife purchased their home for $385,000 in March 2006, a month before marrying. The property was reassessed this summer for $250,000. The couple is trying to save, he said, knowing they may have to move to a bigger place within 18 months to start a family.

“We’ve given up on this dream of having equity in our home,” Mr. Conroy said. “We don’t expect to walk away with cash in hand, we expect to pay.”

State Laws

More homeowners may opt to take a hit to their credit score rather than come up with cash to cover the loss, especially in California and the nine other U.S. states where the legal repercussions of foreclosures are less than other parts of the country, said Mr. Sharga.

Ten states are so-called nonrecourse, prohibiting deficiency judgments after most home foreclosures: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington, according to the National Consumer Law Center, based in Boston. The bank can repossess your home in those states, not other assets, to settle the debt.

In California, a second-mortgage holder may try to pursue a delinquent borrower to repay through litigation, said Rick Brooks, a financial adviser with the San Diego-based wealth advisory firm Blankinship & Foster LLC. Banks generally prefer not to sue because it can easily cost $60,000 or more, said Debra Guzov, co-founder of the law firm Guzov Ofsink LLC, based in New York.

Banks may be more willing to accept foreclosure alternatives, such as a short sale or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure, in states where a lender can’t sue for personal assets, said Brad Geisen, chief executive officer of Foreclosure.com, based in Boca Raton, Fla.

In a short sale, the borrower finds a buyer for the home at an acceptable price and the bank agrees to forgive the difference, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with North Palm Beach, Fla.-based Bankrate.com. In a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure, the bank sells the home after a similar debt negotiation.

Tax Break

A 2007 law exempts from tax up to $2 million of debt forgiven in a foreclosure or similar proceeding for a primary residence, according to Internal Revenue Service spokesman Eric Smith. The tax break extends to 2012.

The lender’s willingness to negotiate varies and depends on the loan balance, condition of the property, location and resale opportunities, said Alberta Hultman, chief executive officer of USFN, an association of U.S. mortgage banking attorneys based in Tustin, Calif.

Short sales or deeds-in-lieu of foreclosures are considered the same as a foreclosure on your credit score, said Craig Watts, spokesman for Minneapolis-based FICO Corp., owner of the credit-scoring formula most widely used by U.S. lenders.

A foreclosure remains on a credit report for seven years. Credit scores can begin to rebound in as little as 2 years if bills are paid on time, according to FICO.

“You really want to think through the inability to borrow and higher rates that you’ll pay,” Christopher Van Slyke, a partner at Trovena LLC, a wealth management firm based in La Jolla, Calif., said of walking away.

“If you don’t have the gun to your head, then stay right where you are,” said Cheryl Morhauser, a financial adviser based in Nevada City, Calif., whose clients’ average net worth is $1.5 million to $3 million.

Jennifer Albaugh, 34, plans to keep her Las Vegas home, where prices have dropped 49 percent since she bought it in December 2004, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index.

Ms. Albaugh, who owns a fabric store, might have sold her 3,000-square-foot house for as much as $550,000 four years ago, she said. Today she owes more than $300,000 on her mortgage and says her house isn’t worth even close to that. She and her husband are still looking to buy a bigger home for their two kids, especially while rates are low, and might turn their current home into a vacation rental, she said.

“Walking out of your house to get a better deal down the street is just not the right thing to do,” she said. “It hurts everybody.”

Social Stigma

Morality and social stigmas play an important role in whether someone who can afford the payments will walk away, said Paola Sapienza, professor of finance at Northwestern University’s business school, in a July study on strategic defaults. Eighty-one percent of 1,646 homeowners interviewed think it is morally wrong, the study found.

“If you know someone who’s done it, you’re way more likely to do it,” Ms. Sapienza said. “That’s the scariest part, is that there might be some contagion part of this.”

Ms. Albaugh and Mr. Conroy, the San Diego homeowner, said they’re frustrated by the lack of help for homeowners like them who keep paying.

“It seems like the banks are more willing to work with people who aren’t making their payments rather than people who are,” Mr. Conroy said.

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