Homeowner "Walkaways": Are They Fact Or Fiction?

Foreclosure Sign
Foreclosure Sign

There’s a growing debate in the real estate community concerning the phenomenon of homeowner “walkaways”: Borrowers who can afford their mortgages, but decide to stop making their monthly payments because their home is now worth less than the value of their mortgage.

Some are even calling it “jingle mail” because of the sound your keys supposedly make when you mail them back to your lender. Do these borrowers really represent a meaningful percentage of today’s foreclosure numbers?

There is no real hard data yet, but analysts, bankers and even government types like Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are warning about the supposed new trend. There was a fascinating article in the Financial Times back on January 31st that discussed the new mindset of today’s borrowers: “…it has become culturally more acceptable this decade for people to abandon houses or stop paying in the hope of renegotiating their home loans. The shame that used to be associated with losing a house may, in other words, be ebbing away.”

An article in the LA Times last Sunday points out that the numbers are “hard to quantify,” and not even the Mortgage Bankers Associationcan produce any figures. That’s why some call it an urban legend, perpetuated by all sorts of folks who rejoice in scaring everyone about the housing market.

Some would argue that your car loses value the minute you drive it all the lot, but millions of Americans happily continue to make car payments because they need to drive. Same thing with your house, because you need somewhere to live. I put that scenario to Rick Sharga, an exec with online foreclosure sale site RealtyTrac.com:

You're not paying 3k a month for your car – and you’re not locked into that contract for the next 30 years – it’s a little different scenario. And when you start layering in the fact that that house that you bought 3 years ago for $1,000 a month is now costing you $3k a month, and it's worth 100k less than you paid for it – the dynamics change a little bit. People don’t look at a car the way they look at a house.

You could argue, however, that homeowners who can afford to keep their homes, even when the value has depreciated, wouldn’t want to ruin their credit ratings by walking away. But then you see a company like Youwalkaway.com,which opened up this year to counsel borrowers on how to restore their credit. It’s apparently gaining customers.

If it’s true, and people are walking away from homes they can afford just because they’re worth less on paper, then that says something pretty disappointing about American sentiment today, that is: A lot of folks don’t think homes are going to regain their lost value anytime soon.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com