The whole CDO binge (aka Big Shitpile) led to a whole slew of perverse incentives to not help a borrower who is having difficultly paying the mortgage, even though, in the era before mortgages were treated as commodities to be sold, banks routinely went out of their way to avoid foreclosure–usually the costs were too great to make foreclosure a routine act. I’ve argued that if banks aren’t willing to work with homeowners due to financial reasons, then homeowners should also act in their best interests: if that means walking away (‘strategic default’), so be it.
Nicholas Carroll runs the numbers for a family in which one person has lost a job:
They have done a careful financial projection. The total monthly expenses are $5,000, right down to the last dime — which includes $2,500/month on mortgage and credit card bills. That says that if the main breadwinner is not fully employed in 14 months, they will lose the home — and of course take a dip in their credit rating. And if the job doesn’t come until the 13th month, it had better be at the same salary as the previous job, or they’ll lose the home anyway.
Scenario A: Betting on a job, and continuing to pay the mortgage (a.k.a. “doing the right thing,” according to the moralists). They guess that they will be fully employed again in time to save the home. They continue paying mortgage, car payments, and minimum monthly credit card payments….
Scenario B: Prudently walking away. They decide that getting a job might require a career shift or relocation, with some time and money invested in re-education. They immediately stop paying the mortgage and credit card payments. In this scenario, they cut their expenses by $2,500/month (which rises to $3,500/month when they move out and start paying rent). If there is real equity in their financed car, they sell it and buy a used car to replace it.
Here’s the difference between options A and B (italics original; boldface mine):
The difference between A and B is incredible. If the family bets the primary bread-winner will be working within the year and is wrong, they could be leaving their home without enough money to rent a decent apartment in 14 months — exhausted, frightened, and possibly running on bald tires. (People who “do the right thing” tend to leave long before they actually get legal notice to move.)
The family that bets the primary bread-winner will not find a job in 13 months and stops paying the debts will be leaving their home with $33,000 cash in hand, move to a rental (usually in the same school district, if need be), and will have three years for the primary bread-winner to find a job. And that’s their worst scenario — it’s quite likely they’ll be in the house for 18-24 months without making any mortgage payments.
Conclusion: when the writing is on the wall, the best plan is often a prudent walkaway — an escape to the future, equipped with enough cash to get there.
As I’ve said before, this is a business decision. And walking away is something businesses do when it’s the best option.