June 30, 2009
[efoods]House prices in America have fallen so far that as many as one in five households have mortgage debt greater than the value of their homes. In a few states, borrowers are not liable for the shortfall between an unpaid loan and the resale value of the home it is secured upon. Even where borrowers are on the hook, lenders often find it too costly to pursue unpaid debts. So some homeowners may be tempted to default and escape the burden of negative equity.
How widespread is this practice? New research* based on a survey of 1,000 homeowners suggests that one in four mortgage defaults are “strategic”—by people who could meet their payments but who choose not to. The main drivers of strategic default are the scale of negative equity, and moral and social considerations. Few would opt to renege on their mortgage if the equity gap were below 10% of their home’s value, the authors find, partly because of the costs of moving. But one in six would bail out if loans were underwater by a half.