For some, the idea of walking away from a mortgage presents quite a moral dilemma. Others feel duty-bound to fulfill their contractual obligation to continue making payments to the lender, regardless of how much (or how little) their home is worth.
Personally, I believe if one has the ability to pay their debts, any debt, they should pay them. This idea doesn’t stop with mortgages. I don’t like voluntary car repossessions or walking away from credit card debt you legitimately owe and can afford to pay.
Think about it. When you signed your signature 27 times the day you took on a mortgage, you accepted some risk that the “investment” you were making would hold its value. The lender made the same calculated risk, and even required you to buy private mortgage insurance if your down payment was small to transfer some of that risk away from them.
Now, there is a difference in someone losing a job, struggling to make their mortgage payment and other obligations, and someone who simply wakes up one morning and decides they are no longer going to pay their bills. Those in the latter category rationalize their decision with sentiments like, “Well, why should I continue to pay for something that is of lesser value than when I bought it?”
Using that same logic, we’d walk away from new car loans, and even credit card debt, because the things we “financed” are not worth nearly the same value now as when purchased new. Besides the question of ethics, walking away from your mortgage, or any debt, can have serious financial consequences.
Damage to Your Credit
If you simply walk away from your mortgage, you credit will take a hit. If your credit is already shot, you may not care. If you are of the opinion, what’s a good credit score good for anyway, then you may not care.
If you recognize that maintaining a good credit score is a necessary evil in today’s society because insurers, employers and lenders check scores when making offers, you might consider damage to your credit score a negative consequence of walking away from a mortgage.
Apart from the hit to your FICO score, walking away from your mortgage could also present legal issues. Walking away from any debt means the lender is free to foreclose (or repossess) the item you financed and sell it at whatever value the market brings. For foreclosed properties, that usually means a big discount.
If the amount the property sells for isn’t enough to clear the debt owed against it, guess who the bank can legally come after? That’s right, you. So “walking away” doesn’t necessarily mean you are off the hook.
Alternatives to Walking Away from a Mortgage
Workout payments. If you are legitimately in trouble, for whatever reason, and are unable to make your mortgage payment, attempt to work with the lender. Most mortgage issuers are preparing for a higher rate of foreclosures in the near future, which could mean big losses for them. They’d much rather have customers continue to stay in the home and make payments.
Short sell. If you do decide to sell, discuss the option of a short sell with your lender. Basically a short sell means selling the property for less than is owed, at a mutually agreed to price amongst buyers, sellers and the current lender. Be sure to negotiate a sale without recourse – meaning the bank cannot come after you for the balance of the loan (as described above).
Do nothing. If your mortgage is underwater, meaning you owe more on your home than it is worth, but you are able to continue making payments, then the most attractive option may be to do nothing. Stay put. Hope that the economy comes around in the next few years and your value comes back. In time, by continuing to make payments, you will eventually reach a point where your house is no longer underwater.
The Housing Bubble Lessons Learned
I lived in rentals growing up because my mom could never afford a down payment on a home. Until just recently, my family leased a house until we were debt free. During that time as a renter, all I ever heard from others was that we were making such a mistake by not buying a home. A home was a fantastic investment. Renting was like throwing money away.
Well, I wonder how many of those same people still believe that. A home can be a good investment, but mostly it’s just shelter to keep you and yours warm and dry. That’s all it is. And it doesn’t matter if you pay a mortgage company or a landlord to keep that shelter.
Of course, you may have more freedoms owning real estate, but you have more responsibilities, too. There are pros and cons to virtually every financial decision we make, so do what works best for your situation. Whatever you do, avoid buying real estate until you are on a solid financial foundation and avoid viewing it as a significant investment. After all, we’ve seen how quickly that “investment” in real estate can drop.