I came across this article in the NY Times yesterday, which seemed to imply that there was something wrong with walking away from a mortgage. A complete bunch of crock, as far as I am concerned. I know this position will likely draw some fire from those who believe that there is some sort of moral obligation involved here, but that's nonsense. Just like any other business transaction, a mortgage does not carry any moral obligation with it - it is merely an agreement between two parties in which they allocate the risks and the rewards of a given business transaction.
The two sides enter into this transaction in a very deliberate way, each knowing exactly what risks they are accepting and each hoping to get as much out of the deal as they can. The written contract between them is all that binds them, and the types of re-course they agreed upon in it are all that they have a right to expect.
In a typical non-recourse mortgage agreement, the bank is fully aware that at most they will be able to take possession of the house. No one is forcing them to enter into this relationship, they are doing so of their own volition. If they so chose, they could protect themselves by insisting that the borrower put more of his own money into the transaction to make sure that the asset is worth more than the loan amount. If they underestimated the risk, or chose to enter into a losing transaction, it is their own bad choice.
The borrower can choose to continue to pay his mortgage even though the asset securing the loan is worth less than the loan amount, but that is not a rational economic choice. The government and the banks are running a morally bankrupt campaign to portray strategic mortgage defaulters as immoral. What's immoral is trying to get people to act against their own financial best interest, and grant the banks protection from what is nothing more than a bad business decision.
Defaulting strategically is simply the exercise of a contractual right negotiated by borrowers in non-recourse loans. Indeed that is the whole point of a non-recourse loan. Your exposure is limited to the capital you put into the deal. The lender willingly accepts the remaining risk. This is why the lender gets his own appraisal of the asset value as part of the deal.
Moreover, in mounting their campaign to discourage strategic defaulters the government and lenders are protecting the more powerful side in the deal. The banks are the sophisticated party in the financial transaction. It is they who practically dictated the deal terms to their borrowers, who are in a vast majority of cases simple homeowners. They deserve no protection from their own economic choices.
There is no shame in walking away from a mortgage. No sense in protecting a sophisticated bank from their poor business decisions, at the expense of your family's financial security. There may be reasons to avoid walking away - the most important being the credit score hit - but there is certainly no moral obligation to keep throwing money down the drain.
Enjoyed this post? Please consider subscribing to Money and Such by free RSS Feed or by email. You can also follow me on Twitter.