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More Borrowers Pay Credit Cards Before Mortgages

AP

It's exactly the opposite of the norm. Usually cash-strapped Americans during tough economic times will miss credit card payments before they'll miss mortgage payments.

Welcome to the new world order.

The percentage of borrowers who are delinquent on their mortgages but paying their credit card bills on time is growing, to 6.6 percent in the third quarter of 2009 from 4.9 percent in the same quarter of 2008, according to a new study by Chicago-based TransUnion. In an interview with Reuters, the author of the study, Sean Reardon, confirmed, "This goes against conventional wisdom and that has always been that, when faced with a financial crisis, consumers will pay their secured obligations first, specifically their mortgages."

While concerning, I don't find this surprising at all.

Today's consumer is all about cash-flow, and that means keeping the credit cards current. A home is no longer the product it was even five years ago, no longer an emotional investment. For a growing number of borrowers, a home is now a financial investment plain and simple, and more and more often, a lost investment. I read an article a few years ago about how Americans' attitudes toward their homes was changing, how twenty years ago losing your home was as big a social stigma as it was a hit to your credit rating, even more so. Not anymore.

Let's face it: An awful lot of borrowers out there put nothing into their homes and therefore have neither a financial, nor, more profoundly an emotional nor social stake in the structure. Of course they're going to pay off their credit cards first, because that has an immediate impact on what they can and cannot buy and do.

On top of that, most troubled borrowers have already figured out that there are so many forces in motion trying to save homes from foreclosure that they can easily miss one, two, five or six mortgage payments before even getting a call from the bank; then, they've got many more months of negotiations over modifications, short sale options, even the foreclosure process itself, insuring they will have a roof over their heads for a good long time.

I heard an interesting factoid at the American Securitization Forum conference in DC yesterday.

Home building Analyst Ivy Zelman said that in some Florida counties the courts are so backed up with foreclosures that it can take up to three years to get one home through the system.

That's three years of living rent-free, which frees up plenty of cash to pay the Visa bill.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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