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 naïve. 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

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