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Mortgage Defaults: Many Are Intentional, Study Finds

6 minute read
Barbara Kiviat

Up to 26% of U.S. homeowners who stop paying their mortgage may be doing so intentionally, not because they can’t make the payments but because they don’t want to put money into a house that’s worth less than what they owe. That finding, from a paper by economists at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the European University Institute, raises some doubt about the approach the Obama Administration has taken toward stabilizing the housing market. The current approach focuses on whether or not homeowners can afford their monthly payments, and largely ignores the fact that some 20% of homeowners owe more than their house is worth — a situation known as negative equity, or being “underwater,” which, according to the paper’s findings, may itself trigger default.

The paper’s authors caution that their statistics are not exact and should be taken primarily as an indication that there is a looming problem, one that needs to be addressed. The 26% figure comes from a series of consumer surveys that feed into the Booth Chicago/Kellogg School Financial Trust Index. In December 2008 and again in March 2009, 1,000 people were surveyed and asked, among other things, if they knew anyone who had defaulted on a mortgage, and if they knew anyone who had defaulted on a mortgage even if he or she could afford to make the monthly payment. By taking the ratio of the two answers, the economists calculated that more than a quarter of defaults are, as they put it, “strategic.”

(Read “Home Sales Perk Up, but Expensive Houses Languish.”)

“They can still afford to pay but they decide not to,” says Paola Sapienza, a finance professor at Northwestern University and one of the paper’s authors. “It’s very easy to do this in the U.S.” Even though there are serious consequences to reneging on a home loan — including wrecked credit, not being able to buy another house for years to come, the cost of moving and the social stigma associated with being a person who does not honor one’s commitments — lenders tend not to pursue former homeowners for the money they are owed because of the prohibitive cost of tracking down such people and suing them.

Notably, other survey data included in the paper suggest the percentage of intentional defaults may be much lower than 26%. The researchers also asked if respondents themselves would welsh on their mortgages if they were $50,000 underwater. Among the people for whom $50,000 represented less than 10% of their home’s value, none would walk away. However, once $50,000 represented between 10% and 20% of the house’s value, 5% said they would walk away, and when the shortfall reached 50% of home’s value, a full 17% said they would.

(See “Renting a Modernist House.”)

When the shortfall amount in question was $100,000, the walk-away responses accelerated at a faster rate. Some 7% of people said they would intentionally default when a $100,000 shortfall represented less than 10% of their house’s value. Once that shortfall represented between 50% and 60% of the home’s value, an entire 25% of respondents said they would walk away. The hesitation to intentionally default when the theoretical amount of negative equity was $50,000, even when representing the same percentage of a home’s value, may relate to the high fixed costs that come with walking away, such as moving.

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What is not clear is how the survey results map onto what is actually happening in the U.S. today. It is true that in some areas of the country homes have lost half their value. It is also true, according to data aggregator First American CoreLogic, that there are five states where more than 30% of mortgage holders are underwater and another 15 states where at least 15% of homeowners are. However, this sort of data does not indicate how much homeowners are underwater — or their attitudes about future home prices. If a homeowner believes house prices will recover during the time he intends to live in his house — which could easily be 10 or 15 years — then the incentive to walk away stops making sense from an economic perspective.

Christopher Foote, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who studied negative equity in Massachusetts during the late 1980s and early 1990s when home prices dropped 23%, argues that most walk-aways are likely driven by the combination of two things: both negative equity and an economic hardship, such as job loss.

(See 10 ways your job will change.)

More recently, Foote and his colleagues have studied patterns of mortgage nonpayment, and found that in certain states there is a disproportionate number of people who suddenly stop making payments and never try to catch up. This, they surmise, might be an indication of walk-aways — as opposed to struggling borrowers desperately trying to stay in their homes, making payments when they can. The states with more sudden stops are California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona — places where property prices have plummeted and more than 30% of homeowners are underwater. “That’s consistent with the idea that there should be more walk-aways in those states,” says Foote. “But outside of those states, I would think that walk-aways are more rare than people think.”

Data from the new paper also point to the likelihood of mass walk-aways being a highly localized event. Sapienza and her colleagues plotted data on late mortgage payments and home-price declines and found very little relationship between the two when house prices in a metropolitan area had dropped less than 20% from their peak. However, once prices had fallen more than 20%, a disproportionate number of people wound up behind on their mortgage payments, even when the unemployment rate (a measure of means to pay) was held constant.

The research also suggests that social cues can play a large role in deciding to walk away. The researchers found that even though 81% of people surveyed considered it immoral to intentionally default, those respondents who said they knew somebody who had were nearly twice as likely to say they themselves would. People who live in areas with high foreclosure rates were also more likely to say they’d be willing to walk away. “Once you see everyone else doing it, maybe the stigma goes down,” says Sapienza. “It’s also possible that there’s a multiplication effect: if I know other people are walking away, the value of my house deteriorates.” Which then would create the problem anew.

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