Should You Walk Away From Your Mortgage?

During the peak of the real estate buying frenzy (2005–2007) many Americans decided to invest in real estate other than their homes in the hopes of capital gains. Unfortunately, when the bubble burst, the ensuing credit crisis left these investors with a moral dilemma.

Many of these investors are just ordinary folks who pay their bills on time, have good credit scores and would no more consider defaulting on a debt than they would stop brushing their teeth every day! But “walking away” is now on their short list of options to consider.

“Walking away” – also known as voluntary foreclosure or strategic default – occurs when a borrower decides to stop paying a mortgage even though they can still afford the payment. Why would someone consider such a controversial course of action? Because of the following unfortunate circumstances:

  • Market values are way less than the mortgage balance (often referred to as being “underwater”).
  • Refinancing to current lower rates is not an option due to lack of equity.
  • Experiencing negative cash flow (rents are not covering expenses) each month.
  • Selling isn’t an option with prices as depressed as they are, without bringing in cash to close.
  • Difficulty raising rents in current economic environment.
  • No clarity on when real estate market values will recover.

You’ve heard the expression “throwing good money after bad”?

What Happens if You Walk Away?

When you walk away from a mortgage, your credit score will drop. If you have a secure job, own a home with a decent mortgage loan or are happy renting, you may not need a mortgage loan for many years. But if you do plan on buying a home, it will be up to seven years before banks will lend to you, and you may be required to make a bigger down payment or pay higher interest rates.

You will also need to deal with your tenants. Fortunately, their rights are protected by the “Protecting Tenants of Foreclosure Act of 2009.” This legislation requires the new owner to let the tenant stay at least until the end of the lease; month-to-month tenants are entitled to 90 days notice before having to move out.

If you live in California (laws vary by state), as long as you first mortgage is a purchase money loan used to buy a one- to four-unit residential property, you won’t have to worry about  the lender coming after assets other than the property itself. Anti-deficiency statutes exist that protect borrowers in non-recourse states. The same protection doesn’t exist for refinanced loans. In either case, banks in California rarely go down this path due to the time and legal expense involved (at least for now).

If you took out an equity line or HELOC and it was used to buy the property, then it is also considered a non-recourse loan. Otherwise, most equity loans and HELOCs are recourse loans and you will be personally responsible for paying them back after the foreclosure. The lender can pursue you for a deficiency balance.

Under federal law, a lender must report to the IRS any forgiveness of debt in an amount larger than $600. So, as a real estate investor, you will owe tax on the amount of debt forgiven.

There is some “good” news: If you aren’t a professional real estate investor and you have owned the property for several years, it is likely you have accumulated capital loss carryovers. You will be able to deduct those losses from your taxes in the year of the foreclosure.

Two Sides to the Moral Dilemma Debate

Since 2007, the rate of foreclosures has sky-rocketed, and there is no end in sight. A national debate has ensued regarding the decision to walk-away. One side believes that underwater property owners are acting in their financial best interest to walk while the other believes it is shameful and unacceptable.

No matter which side you are on, the decision to stop paying your mortgage is not one to be made lightly. But it’s one that any financially intelligent person would consider with the right circumstances. The most prudent course of action is to get educated, understand all of the repercussions as thoroughly as possible, consult financial professionals as needed, and make a well-thought out decision for yourself and your family.

About the author

Cathy Curtis, CFP®

3 Comments

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  • Great article Cathy.
    To Tim: With the sewage issue in mind, if it’s even possible to stay longer you may be leaving money on the table. Google “Cash for keys” programs.

  • Cathy,

    I have a first mortgage and a second mortgage on an investment property in NV. Both were used to buy the home but the second us actually a HELOC. Will the lender be able to pursue me for deficiency in NV?

  • Hi Cathy,

    I’ve decided to walk out on my mortgage. Can I just mail in keys, and have utilities shut off once I’m moved out, and then inform mortgage company that the house is vacant?

    I have already informed mortgage company of my intentions, and am trying to push short sale, but they reject all offers. I’ve also offered deed in lieu, and have gotten no response whatsoever.

    Had recent sewage line collapse, and even if I could afford to fix I’m not considering since I’m both underwater on mortgage and severely behind on payments.

    Do you know of clear step by step process on how to walk away (things to do, and order). I’m just concerned about missing something as I’ve lived here over 10yrs, and this is a big event for me.

    thanks,
    tim

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