Thursday, April 29, 2010

What To Do When Your House Is Underwater

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. © 2010
Almost one of every four homeowners are faced with the sad reality that they owe more money on their home than they could sell it for. In the real estate world, that’s called ‘being underwater.’ This blog is a realistic review of your options, and discusses the biggest mistake people make when they are in this tight spot.

1. If you can still afford to live in your home and enjoy living where you do, stay there. If you are still working (or retired with the same income as when you bought the house and qualified for the mortgage) and living within your means – don’t worry about how much your home is worth because you don’t have to sell it. Your home is an inflation hedge, especially if you have a long-term fixed rate mortgage. In most areas of the country home values will eventually rise again. Keep in mind that one of the primary purposes of owning a home is the joy of living there.

2. If, however, you need to move, then you have to review your options. It may be that you have become unemployed, or your job requires relocation, or you want to downsize to cut expenses. Many people have adjustable rate mortgages that have been reset to a higher interest rate, so they cannot afford to live in their home. The obvious answer is that you can sell the house for what you can get, then sell other assets (perhaps some investments) and bring a check to the closing to cover the amount of the mortgage not covered by your sales proceeds. As we will discuss later, this is often the best option.

Regardless of what you may have heard, the following options (#3-#8) are successful only for homeowners who stop making payments. Banks are not likely to negotiate with you if they are still getting paid…and why would they?

3. There are 12 states* in the U.S. which provide that homeowners have no personal recourse for a mortgage taken out to purchase a principal residence. That means you can just walk away from the loan. The bank will foreclose and sell the home at auction, but they will not be able to sue you for any deficiency should the net sales proceeds not equal what you owe. Your credit score will drop by about 200 points, but this is a viable option. From a moral perspective, keep in mind that you paid a premium (built into your closing costs) when you bought the home to have this option. So it is not unlike collecting on an insurance policy.

In the past forgiven debt was taxable as income but currently this does not apply to cancellation of the unpaid portion of a mortgage used to buy the house. If there is a second mortgage, any unpaid amount may be taxable income.

4. In the 38 other states, if you walk away from your home the bank will foreclose and sell the home at auction. If the house doesn’t sell for enough to pay off the mortgage, they can sue you for the deficiency. With a judgment they can then put liens on other assets (like bank accounts or other real estate) and garnish your wages. So not only are you on the hook for the deficiency (plus the bank’s collection costs and attorney fees), but your credit score will likely crash about 300-400 points and you could have to pay income taxes on the unpaid portion of the mortgage.

5. A better option than foreclosure is to deal with the bank and work out an arrangement called a “deed in lieu of foreclosure.” When banks stop receiving payments, they will be open to talking about this approach. In these situations the bank agrees to have you just sign over the deed so they don’t have the expenses of foreclosure. With the bank’s agreement, you can qualify for non-taxable debt forgiveness. It will cut your credit score by 300-400 points initially, but you end up free of the debt. Again, the bank is not likely to agree to this if you are working or have other assets they can levy

6. In recent years there has been an effort by the government to pressure banks to provide “Loan Modifications” to homeowners who are unable to make their payments and who meet strict criteria. For most people, this is not a viable option. Loan modifications may include lowering the interest rate or extending the term to reduce monthly payments. However banks are not willing to reduce the principle owed. This is a time consuming process, and thousands of applicants have overwhelmed banks. It takes an inordinate amount of time to check applicants and banks don’t make any money beyond the $1,500 offered from the federal government (more red tape) if a loan is modified. Of the 4 million homes in foreclosure last year only 2% were approved for modification and 2 of every 3 modifications were in default again within 6 months.

7. Most homes selling now are ‘short sales.’ This requires the owner to find a buyer at a reduced price. If a bank accepts the low offer, the owner signs the house over to the bank and the buyer/investor buys the home from the bank and the bank releases the owner. Thus, there is no deficiency and the forgiveness of debt does not trigger a taxable event. It will knock about 250 points off your credit score. There are now some real estate agents who specialize in these transactions, although most avoid getting involved because of the paperwork, the time commitment, and very small commissions.

8. The final solution for most people who need to move from their home is to continue cutting the price until it sells, even though it means taking a check to the closing to pay off the mortgage. There are very few buyers in the market now, mortgages are difficult to get, and appraisals are very conservative. So even if you get a willing buyer at a reasonable price, often the appraisal will not be high enough to get a mortgage. As prices drop, this process reinforces itself.


You can sell your house if it is priced right but the ‘right price’ has nothing to do with what you paid for it, what you invested in it, what it was worth 3 years ago, or how much you owe on it. The ‘right price” is what someone in this market will pay for it.

To arrive at the ‘right price,’ recognize that pricing is a process, not an event. Start by listing your house somewhat below other comparable houses in your neighborhood. Keep in mind that current listings are overpriced – otherwise someone would have already bought them. Then ruthlessly cut the price on your house every 6-8 weeks by 5-10%, and keep cutting until you get an offer. Cutting the price will put you on the top of the pile and keeps your house from becoming a ‘stale listing.’

This makes good financial sense when you realize the tremendous carrying costs of a vacant house. Ignoring carrying costs is the biggest mistake people make when they face this scenario. Carrying costs generally run about 10% per year of the home’s value and include the house payment, taxes, insurance, repairs and upkeep, as well as opportunity costs for the equity (if you still have equity.) So if your home is worth $400,000, the carrying costs are about $40,000/yr. If you are determined to get your price, you might easily wait 2 years until the market bottoms out. Then you will have paid out $80,000 in carrying costs. Now it will have to appreciate 30%-40% per year for the next two years for you to pay 2 more years of carrying costs plus ‘catch-up’ appreciation for you to break even. To expect this spectacular market turnaround is na├»ve. You’re better off selling the home for $350,000 now, and in two years you will have avoided $80,000 in carrying costs.

Living in a home you can’t afford, or trying to rent it out, doesn’t change the math much either because the carrying costs don’t take into account the continuing drop in home values in most areas. In many areas there are huge inventories of unsold homes in foreclosure, and we are facing another tsunami of homes likely to go into default in the next year or two as all the of 5-year adjustable mortgages from 3-4 years ago are reset.

Keep in mind if you use any of the techniques in this article, under a new federal law you will not be able to obtain a new mortgage for 4-7 years. If you lost your job, or had a catastrophic illness, this disqualification period is shortened to 2 years.

Of course, each situation is different. It is advisable to get professional advice from someone whose compensation is not dependent on the outcome of your decision. The upside is that, if you are buying a home, you will very likely find a great bargain once this housing bust ends!

*AK, AZ, CA, CT, FL, ID, MN, NC, ND, TX, UT, WA – laws vary by state.

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY., as well as the fact-checking of Terry Fraser (Mackinac Bank), and Trevor Smith (Incline Village Real Estate), and blog editing by Susan Stanley

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What’s Next: Inflation or More Deflation?

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.


Excessive government spending fueled by ‘printing more money’ or selling Treasury Bonds always raises the specter of runaway inflation. Inflation causes prices to rise rapidly, and is measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Since the current downturn in 2008, the CPI has barely risen, and some measures of CPI actually indicate deflation (which is why retired folks didn’t get a CPI increase in their Social Security benefits this year).

Financial journalists, who write articles and commentary, as well as advertisements selling gold as an investment, often predict future inflation and point to reckless federal spending that erodes the future value of the dollar. Some suspect that government believes it can solve our economic issues by adding programs that will eventually pay for themselves (even though they never have in the past). These commentators may well be right. Inflation is created by too many dollars chasing too few goods. As the money supply increases on a vast scale many armchair economists are convinced that run-away inflation is inevitable.

The economic environment of the 1970’s is often offered as an example of government bungling that poisoned the financial markets. The 70’s remind us of wage and price controls, gas rationing, and oil prices increasing at the whim of the oil cartel. Yet these aren’t pertinent to today’s issues (so far). There are some parallels to the ‘guns and butter’ deficits (i.e. Vietnam and expansion of social services), distrust of government leaders, and the federal government artificially holding down interest rates. So while rampant inflation is a potential outcome, today’s economy doesn’t compare exactly with the 70’s. Inflation is not the only possibility.

Another possibility is the opposite of inflation, or deflation, which is characterized by too few dollars being available to purchase the goods and services being produced. If there is not sufficient ‘velocity’ in an economy to maintain ongoing economic growth, then prices, wages and employment can all decrease. I am more concerned about deflation than inflation in the future because deflation hits suddenly, whereas inflation typically increases gradually.

The Great Depression is the most common example of the deflation vortex. It was very difficult to obtain bank loans, so businesses had to scale back production and inventories. Lower sales created more layoffs, leaving even fewer people to buy goods and services. Deflation, once ignited, can become a voracious beast that sucks the life out of an economy.

Some economists believe the programs initiated by FDR pulled us out of the Great Depression. Others believe that the federal intervention created ‘make-work’ programs that made the situation worse. They note that we didn’t recover until we went into World War II. World wars are a horrible way to create full employment.

But what about today? As in the past the government is intent on increasing the money supply to help the economy move forward. Is deflation a possibility? I think so. There are at least three current phenomena, which can deflect the impact of increasing the money supply, and result in deflation rather than inflation.

The first is productivity, which measures G.D.P. This is the output of goods and services produced per worker. If productivity increases while the money supply is increasing, the impact of inflation can be nullified. Generally, recessions are initially accompanied by increased productivity as firms lay off the least efficient workers. This, of course, creates higher unemployment and puts downward pressure on prices. During the current ‘recession,’ productivity has steadily increased.

When the government creates ‘make-work’ jobs, which do not increase G.D.P., economic activity may be propped up temporarily. But this approach is not sustainable and could ignite inflation. If it were to continue, the economy would reach the point where virtually everyone worked for the government, as in Russia during the Cold War. But these daily lives without private incentive ultimately create economic collapse, sometimes expressed by the Russian saying: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us!”

The second factor is personal savings. If the personal savings rate increases in step with increases in the money supply, then less money is being spent. As monetary velocity drops, there are fewer buyers, and eventually fewer workers. Japan experienced this during the ‘Lost Decade’ of the 1990’s when they did not address the core problems with their banking system. As the Japanese government tried to “paper it over” by printing more money, people who increased their savings thwarted its efforts. It should be noted that the personal savings rate in the U.S. has increased from 0.5% at the beginning of this recession to 6.0% currently.

The third factor that comes into play is the global economy. Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, commented as he stepped down from office that he had been baffled by the low inflation in the 90’s despite large increases in the money supply. But by the end of his term he had identified that the expanding global economy enabled production to move to the least costly sites, which offset inflationary pressures.

Consider a ‘Perfect Storm’ of higher government spending and expansion of the money supply, offset by 1) higher productivity with high unemployment, 2) increased personal savings rates generated by widespread fear, and 3) protectionism exacerbated by a cycle of retaliatory tariffs strangling the global economy. This could create a much more destructive deflationary spiral than creeping inflation.

I am not forecasting this outcome for our economy. But it is a significant possibility that concerns me. That’s why we continue to structure our clients’ net worth using the guidelines of Functional Asset Allocation. This approach is designed to hedge against both inflationary and deflationary environments, as well as provide for long-term portfolio growth whenever we are fortunate enough to return to a period of prosperity.

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.