Deadbeat Homeowners Hit The Road

Last Updated: May 20, 2008By

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There was a time in America when losing your home to the mortgage lender was about the worst financial calamity that could befall a person. Not only were you homeless, your dignity was trampled by the repossession of your property.

That was Norman Rockwell. This is now.

To the distress of many banks and investors, American borrowers are increasingly viewing voluntary foreclosure as a practical financial decision, stripped of its taboo. Perhaps a bigger problem is that banks don’t want to talk about the problem and they don’t appear to know what to do about it. As long as it persists, there will be downward pressure on home prices, especially in overbuilt markets where the supply of housing already outstrips demand.

For the homeowners, the problem is a combination of falling real estate prices and the end of low-cost teaser periods on their mortgages. Those who bought at the crest of the market are finding their mortgages worth more than their homes. Faced with payments they can’t afford and houses they have no stake in, these people are just hitting the road. Though difficult to statistically isolate, there is evidence pointing to the trend.

In March, according to foreclosure database RealtyTrac, foreclosures rose 54.0% year-over-year, but bank repossessions surged at double that rate, 129.0%. What accounts for the difference? Rick Sharga, vice president of marketing at RealtyTrac, said most March repossessions likely involved walkaways: homeowners who simply mailed their keys to the bank and moved. There was no need for the banks to foreclose.

In mid-April, Chief Risk Officer Don Truslow of Wachovia acknowledged the troubling trend during a conference call: “I don’t know where the tipping point is, but somewhere when a borrower crosses the 100.0% loan-to-value, somewhere north of that . . . their propensity to just default and stop paying their mortgage rises dramatically and really accelerates up.”

Even more disconcerting, Truslow added that the trend was “almost regardless” of borrowers’ creditworthiness. Lender’s are beginning to report that loan-to-value ratios are better indicators of the likelihood of default than borrowers’ FICO scores, a widely used metric of creditworthiness developed by Fair, Isaac. (See “Subprime In Sheep’s Clothing”)

But Wachovia doesn’t have a plan to deal with the phenomenon.

“We are concerned about the issue, we just don’t have a strategy yet,” said Don Vecchiarello, a spokesperson for Wachovia (nyse: WB – news – people ). “We are monitoring the walkaway phenomenon and if the issue persists we will develop a strategy around it.”

Banks won’t come out and say how many walkaways they are seeing month after month, but most will offer anecdotal evidence of the trend. The unusual element of walkaways in this cycle that banks will acknowledge is that borrowers with relatively good credit files are opting to exit their mortgage agreements.

Washington Mutual (nyse: WM – news – people ) isn’t in much better shape. “In short, we don’t break out walkaways or provide any metrics on them,” said Derek Aney, a company spokesperson. Aney added that the bank “acknowledges the phenomenon and manages it as part of its overall loss-mitigation activities.”

If it’s in a lender’s best interest to simply claim the property and cancel the mortgage debt, it will accept the deed in lieu of foreclosure and write down the difference between the current value of the home and the remaining mortgage. RealtyTrac’s Sharga said that deeds in lieu are actually better for both the lender and the borrower.

For borrowers, the process is slightly less severe than a foreclosure on their credit records. Also, the bank essentially agrees not to pursue any further payments. For the lender, there are savings in not going through the auction process. This is expecially true if the home has lost value, as is often the case in today’s market. There’s also the relative ease of process relative to the time and expense of a lengthy foreclosure proceeding or the potential of the owner suddenly abandoning the home.

Thomas Kerrigan, a real estate lawyer in New York, said that if a borrower has other assets besides the home, than there is a much greater likelihood that the lender will pursue the deficiency between the total mortgage and the depreciated home price. However, if the lender believes there are no other assets, it will likely make a business decision that it isn’t worth trying to recoup the loss. “You can’t,” Kerrigan noted, “get blood out of a stone.”

Kerrigan also said that that foreclosure law varies from state to state and that banks will have to develop their walkaway strategies accordingly. States with judicial foreclosures, which emphasize homeowner rights, have the most cumbersome procedures. Lenders luck out in non-judicial states like California where foreclosure is a relatively speedy process. Walkaways would probably prefer judicial states because they can camp out in their homes while the banks spend up to a year trying to foreclose.

“It really is a moral dilemma, because it’s wrong, but the repercussions are credit-based,” said Nancy Flint-Budde, a certified financial planner in Salem, New York. “Destroyed credit is a still huge deterrent, but if someone is willing to throw their credit score away for seven years then walking away is an option.” Negative credit items are typically deleted from consumers’ reports after seven years.

Because many people “went in as investors,” rather than homeowners, “they went in with a different mindset and might be willing to just walkway.” Flint-Budde added, “This is why traditionally people had to put more money down when they borrowed money for a second home or investment property.”

Glen Costello, a structured finance officer at Fitch, said that walkaways are nothing new, but this cycle’s factors are. “One could understand that if someone had lost their job and all their savings, they were being forced to give up their home,” said Costello. Now, however, homeowners aren’t as much vulnerable to foreclosure as amenable. They just don’t want to pay high monthly costs for properties in which they do not have stakes.


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