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More see walking on mortgage as a viable plan

Image: House Foreclosure
Chris Kelly, shown in her apartment in Austin, Texas, says she is much happier after downsizing and walking away from a 3,000-square-foot Seattle house.Erin Trieb / for
/ Source: contributor

More Americans than ever are showing a willingness to walk away from their underwater homes, according to a recent survey. Chris Kelly is a perfect example of someone who never thought she would send the bank “jingle mail” — mailing the keys back. But she did.

Until last year Kelly, a 46-year-old administrative assistant, was living in a 3,000-square-foot home she owned with her ex-husband in the Seattle suburbs.

The duo had put the three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home on the market before finalizing their divorce in the spring of 2009 but had no luck luring move-up buyers to the $600,000 home even after price markdowns.

Kelly wound up living there solo, struggling to make the mortgage payments. But as she kept writing checks, and worrying, she became aware that she’d have to make a hard choice: Leave the house while she still had decent savings, or pay until she’d emptied out all her accounts and then enter foreclosure.

In the latter scenario, she’d have to look for a lease with no money left for a deposit. Either way, she’d lose the home, whose value had dropped underwater -- below what the couple owed on it.

“It was a pretty clear decision,” says Kelly, who now lives in Austin, Texas. “I knew I had to walk away. The longer I stayed there, the worse my credit would be and the harder time I’d have finding a rental.”

So a year ago she walked way, joining the growing number of Americans willing to turn their backs on homes they can neither sell nor afford to keep. The real estate industry calls this "strategic default," referring to people who choose to walk away even when they can technically afford to continue paying their mortgage.

Nearly half, 48 percent, of homeowners with a mortgage said they would consider walking away from their home if they owed more on it than it was worth, according to a Harris Interactive survey released this month. The survey was conducted in November for real estate listings site Trulia and foreclosure research firm RealtyTrac.

Just six months ago, a similar survey indicated that only 41 percent of consumers would consider walking if they were underwater on their mortgages.

“It’s a phenomenon we haven’t seen before in the housing market,” said Rick Sharga, senior vice president of RealtyTrac. “The mindset of why people purchase a home has changed over the past decade.”

In the early 2000s, as home prices rose sharply and steadily, many buyers saw their home as an investment. But in the wake of the housing bust, it's clear that a home has become far more of a “utility” — a form of shelter — than an investment.

Over the next year, hundreds of thousands of homeowners will face the question of whether to walk away as their mortgage payments spike.

Sharga said that $300 billion worth of adjustable rate mortgages are expected to reset upward over the next 12 to 15 months, adding on average $1,000 to monthly mortgage payments on homes that already are worth 30 percent to 50 percent less than their original sale price.

Roughly 23.2 percent of all single-family homeowners who have a mortgage are underwater on their property, according to third-quarter data from Zillow. (Zillow estimates that 40 percent of single-family homes are owned, with the rest mortgaged.)

Major banks, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, are preparing to work with these owners through modification programs that may include principal reduction or temporary interest-only loan payments until markets improve and refinancing is possible, Sharga says.

But clearly, many homeowners may have motivation to walk. They’ll see their mortgage payments spike at a time when their home value is underwater the deepest.

American homeowners lost $1.7 trillion in home value during 2010, a far higher loss of equity than the $1 trillion lost during 2009, according to Zillow data released earlier this month. Zillow also reported that less than one-fourth of the 129 metro areas it tracks showed home value gains in 2010.

In addition, the impacts to credit from a foreclosure are typically less damaging than those from a bankruptcy, which hits more lines of credit and loans than just the home loan. According to Barry Paperno, consumer operations manager at, the consumer site for Minneapolis-based credit scoring company Fair Isaac Corp., a personal bankruptcy can shave 130 to 240 points off a person’s credit score, while a foreclosure typically reduces a score by 85 to 160 points. (FICO scores range from 350 to 850, with higher scores better.)

“It’s serious, and it certainly complicate future purchases,” Paperno says. “Compared to a bankruptcy, though, the score impact can be surprisingly different.”

The latest Harris survey also revealed some interesting gender differences in attitudes about strategic default: Men were nearly 50 percent more likely than women to consider walking away from an underwater loan, with 57 percent indicating willingness, vs. 40 percent of women.

Pete Flint, CEO of Trulia, said that this may indicate men take a more investment-minded approach to homeownership and evaluate when to walk as a financial decision, while women may view their property as a home and have a harder time with the concept of leaving it even under fiscal duress.

Kelly embodies both approaches. She says she was torn about the decision, but couldn’t let sentiment overtake what, ultimately, was a move toward self-preservation.

“I never thought that this was something that would happen,” she says. “I loved that house.”