Since the market collapsed back in 2008 we've seen the real estate market take a nosedive. People who bought at the height of the market (assuming that real estate would always appreciate) found themselves in a situation where their homes had dropped significantly in value. My wife and I are a part of the group who have taken a significant hit, our home value has dropped by over $40,000.
Many people, especially those who bought homes without a down payment, or with a sub-prime loan are now finding that they also owe more on the home than it is currently worth. According to a report by First American Core Logic, a real-estate data firm, more than 11 million families are in “negative equity”, that is, they owe more on their home than it is worth.
Thankfully we aren't underwater, but what about those people who are? What are they to do? A growing group of people are saying that for most of those people it would make complete sense to just walk away from their mortgage, stop paying, and take the credit score impact of a foreclosure. They call it a “strategic default“.
My question is this. Is it OK to walk away from your mortgage if you have the money to pay, just because you're underwater and have negative equity?
Credit Score Impact Of Foreclosure
There are a lot of things to consider when you're thinking about walking away from your home. First of all, you need to consider the financial impact of walking away from your mortgage.
One of the most obvious impacts a foreclosure will have on your financial life is on your credit score. Now, I'm not one of those people who will tell you to constantly check your credit score and rely on it for everything, but the fact is that it does play a part in a lot of things these days, so you can't completely ignore it. So what impact does a foreclosure or delinquent payment have on your credit? Fair Isaac pulled back the curtain a bit and revealed a little bit about what kind of a credit score impact those things might have:
30 days late: 40 – 110 points
90 days late: 70 – 135 points
Foreclosure, short sale or deed-in-lieu: 85 – 160
Bankruptcy: 130 – 240
So having a late payment, a short sale, foreclosure or bankruptcy can have a pretty significant impact on your credit score, and mean you'll have to improve credit score later. In any of those situations it is going to show up on your account and have pretty negative impact. What does a lower FICO score potentially mean?
Absorbing a big credit-score hit can make many transactions more costly. It's not just paying more for credit card debt and auto loans, insurance can cost more as well.
The average savings for someone with a good versus mediocre credit score is about $115 a year for auto insurance and $60 for home, according to Loretta Sorters, of the Insurance Information Institute.
A low credit score can even make it harder to rent a home because landlords often use credit scores to weed out prospective renters.
So having a foreclosure, short sale or even late payments can mean you'll end up paying more for a variety of things. Definitely a huge impact to consider when you're thinking about walking away.
Moral Dilemma Or Just A Contractual Transaction?
While walking away from your mortgage will obviously have a negative financial impact, especially as it relates to your credit score, this still isn't enough for many people to not consider it. There are still those who are just having a hard time making ends meet, and while they can still make the payments, they would prefer to just walk away from the hefty mortgage on their underwater home, because they don't want to lose upwards of $50-100,000 (or more) on their home value. Why take the hit when the bank can better absorb the blow?
It does seem to make sense on the surface, but now we need to ask the question, is backing out of a mortgage contract an OK thing for a homeowner to do, or is it morally wrong to back out of a contract you are still able to fulfill?
Personally I tend to come down on the side of paying your obligations if you're able. I like to think that a contract is something you live up to. You knew the terms of the deal when you signed up, and now you should live up to it if you can. We need to be responsible for the obligations that we've made.
Others would counter that a strategic default is a legitimate option that is even spelled out in the mortgage contract, where specific ramifications of a foreclosure or short sale are spelled out for the homeowner. To exercise those options is just a a part of the legal transaction.
I understand that argument, but don't agree with it. Just because the ramifications of missing payments or defaulting are spelled out in a contract, doesn't mean it is an acceptable or desirable thing to do. Also, there is nothing in the mortgage agreement that makes your continued payment contingent upon the value of the home going up! It is a risk that you take!
What do you think? Should morality come into play when making a decision about a strategic default? Is it just a contractual transaction, and should we not feel bad about defaulting or going into foreclosure? Tell us what you think in the comments!