Mortgage Defaults: Many Are Intentional, Study Finds

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David Zalubowski / AP

A foreclosure sign in the south Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo.

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What is not clear is how the survey results map onto what is actually happening in the U.S. today. It is true that in some areas of the country homes have lost half their value. It is also true, according to data aggregator First American CoreLogic, that there are five states where more than 30% of mortgage holders are underwater and another 15 states where at least 15% of homeowners are. However, this sort of data does not indicate how much homeowners are underwater — or their attitudes about future home prices. If a homeowner believes house prices will recover during the time he intends to live in his house — which could easily be 10 or 15 years — then the incentive to walk away stops making sense from an economic perspective.

Christopher Foote, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who studied negative equity in Massachusetts during the late 1980s and early 1990s when home prices dropped 23%, argues that most walk-aways are likely driven by the combination of two things: both negative equity and an economic hardship, such as job loss.

More recently, Foote and his colleagues have studied patterns of mortgage nonpayment, and found that in certain states there is a disproportionate number of people who suddenly stop making payments and never try to catch up. This, they surmise, might be an indication of walk-aways — as opposed to struggling borrowers desperately trying to stay in their homes, making payments when they can. The states with more sudden stops are California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona — places where property prices have plummeted and more than 30% of homeowners are underwater. "That's consistent with the idea that there should be more walk-aways in those states," says Foote. "But outside of those states, I would think that walk-aways are more rare than people think."

Data from the new paper also point to the likelihood of mass walk-aways being a highly localized event. Sapienza and her colleagues plotted data on late mortgage payments and home-price declines and found very little relationship between the two when house prices in a metropolitan area had dropped less than 20% from their peak. However, once prices had fallen more than 20%, a disproportionate number of people wound up behind on their mortgage payments, even when the unemployment rate (a measure of means to pay) was held constant.

The research also suggests that social cues can play a large role in deciding to walk away. The researchers found that even though 81% of people surveyed considered it immoral to intentionally default, those respondents who said they knew somebody who had were nearly twice as likely to say they themselves would. People who live in areas with high foreclosure rates were also more likely to say they'd be willing to walk away. "Once you see everyone else doing it, maybe the stigma goes down," says Sapienza. "It's also possible that there's a multiplication effect: if I know other people are walking away, the value of my house deteriorates." Which then would create the problem anew.

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