The range of potential outcomes had gotten so broad in people’s minds that it now included the end of the world. What they wanted and needed more than anything was reassurance that things would be O.K. and that they should stick with the investment plans we had created together. Providing that reassurance had been my job for 10 years or more, but this was the first time that I really wondered if my advice was right.
It was my job to assist them, but I found it incredibly stressful. It didn’t help that we were in increasingly dire straits ourselves. My income fell about 20 percent because my take-home pay depended on the amount of money I managed. At the same time, our cost for health insurance and property taxes kept increasing, and the payment on our mortgage reset higher as well.
By then, housing prices in Las Vegas were falling quickly, and the bank had cut off our home equity line of credit. We quickly got rid of a car and stopped taking trips. I moved into a smaller workspace and cut back on my administrative and marketing costs. Even so, we found ourselves using credit cards as emergency stopgaps.
Then, the sickness set in. The pain would start in my stomach, and then I’d spend six hours vomiting. It happened once, then three months later it happened again, then one month later it happened yet again. Eventually, it was happening every couple of weeks. The doctors couldn’t find a physical cause.
Right around that time, it became clear that we might need to get back to Utah, where 90 percent of my (still nervous) clients lived. We spent the summer of 2009 living in my in-laws’ basement in Salt Lake City, while I tried to stabilize my financial planning business. By that fall, I was convinced we had to move back permanently to save the business. But that meant we faced the question of what to do about the house.
By then, we owed over $200,000 more than our original loan balance.
Borrowing that much had seemed to make sense when the value of the home was still rising substantially every year, taking our net worth higher with it. But at that point, there was no way we could sell the home for anywhere near what we owed. Some of my friends were already doing short sales, where the bank agrees to let you sell the house for less than your loan balance. I was also aware you had to be three months behind in your payments before the bank would talk to you about the possibility.
At first, I dismissed the idea of a short sale. Late that summer, I sat down with a really close friend in Las Vegas, someone I looked up to. He cut to the heart of the matter right away: Why, he wanted to know, were we still making the payments?
Because I have a moral obligation, I said. You pay your debts.
He proceeded to explain that I didn’t have a moral obligation to the bank. I had a moral obligation to my family. I had a contractual obligation to the bank, along with a clear moral obligation to be honest in my dealings. What he was asking was this: Which is more important? Your contractual obligation to the bank or your obligation to your family to preserve your ability to make a living?
I had never thought of it that way. But it made sense. I summed it up to myself like this: I have a contractual obligation to the bank (as well as a moral obligation not to skirt the consequences of breaking it: losing my house and wrecking my credit score). But my moral obligation to my family trumps the contractual obligation to the bank.
Cori and I thought about this for months, but we finally decided to let the house go and stop making payments so we could pursue a mortgage modification or a short sale. The fact was, we didn’t have a choice. We simply couldn’t afford it.
I remained troubled by the ethical implications of what I was doing, but I soon started seeing some of my friend’s arguments echoed in the work of Brent T. White, a law professor at the University of Arizona. He and others were arguing that homeowners should act more like companies — taking into account legal and economic reasons for stopping a regular payment rather than “perceived moral obligations.”
That was reassuring in the dead of night while I sat in front of the computer trying to make sense of the world financial markets and my own personal situation. I remember being relieved at discovering a way to frame my decision.
But we didn’t know what would happen in the harsh light of day, and we were scared to death. Would we be kicked out of our house? What would the neighbors think? What would the children think? We worried about the stress on our relationship and even the survival of our marriage. I felt like a complete failure.
We looked into a mortgage modification, thinking it might let us keep the house and rent it out after we moved. But the offer from Wells Fargo, which owned our loans by then, was too modest. That meant we could either walk away from the house or work with the bank to do an orderly short sale.
A bank representative came to the house and met with us. He was such a nice guy. Cori had treated it like an open house, and the place was spotless. The guy said he’d never met anyone more qualified for their short sale program.
Somehow, even in that horrid market, we sold the home for $531,000. That was in late August 2010. In exchange, the lender released us from both our first and second mortgages. Today, Zillow estimates the home’s value at $505,000.
We were pretty low when we packed up to leave. We hadn’t told anyone about the short sale — not family and only one or two friends. But we sensed that people knew anyway.
We borrowed a truck from a friend who owns a wood mill to move our belongings. Back in Utah, we found a house to rent— much to my relief and after months of being terrified that we’d never be able to find a landlord willing to take a chance on us. I had to tell the owner what had happened. He looked at our personal references and let us lease the house anyway.
We love where we live now. Still, there are consequences. We lost our home. It’s not clear when we’ll be in a position to become homeowners again.
But the worst thing was my sense of complete failure and powerlessness when I realized that things were out of control and that it was my fault. These days, there is still a sense of genuine regret that I screwed up and hurt myself and other people. I still worry about what others think of my behavior, which is one reason I haven’t shared this story with many people until recently.
We have a friend who is under water on his mortgage even though he has lived within his means and done everything right. He’s sticking with his mortgage for as long as he can.
Someone recently asked me what I’d say to people like him. I guess I’m saying it now. As I was writing this article, I pulled behind a truck with a bumper sticker, “Honk if I’m paying your mortgage.”
I thought about that for a while. I guess one of the ideas behind that bumper sticker is that people like Cori and me who couldn’t afford to pay off our mortgages are to blame for the financial crisis and the bank bailouts that followed. This isn’t the place to explain the causes of the economic slump, and I’m not the guy to do it.
Still, the questions linger. As I ponder all this — and I think about it a lot — it occurs to me that we are a nation of risk-takers. Some of us were overoptimistic; some were ignorant; some were deluded; some were greedy; some just had bad timing. We erred to different degrees. Our experiences varied; each story is different. Now you know mine.
The experience has changed just about everything about how I do financial planning and the advice I give in public. For one thing, I am less quick to judge other people’s financial behavior. I’m also more inclined to take into account personal factors that determine how people behave around money.
I have a friend who is going through a tough time financially. He has a high income, but is burdened by debt from a few real estate deals that went south. He continues to take fairly expensive ski trips. That would seem irresponsible in his situation, and maybe they are.