More Homeowners Walk Away From Their Homes

In 2006, Benjamin Koellmann bought a condominium in Miami Beach. By his calculation, it will be about the year 2025 before he can sell his modest home for what he paid. Or maybe 2040.

“People like me are beginning to feel like suckers,” Mr. Koellmann said. “Why not let it go in default and rent a better place for less?”

After three years of plunging real estate values, after the bailouts of the bankers and the revival of their million-dollar bonuses, after the Obama administration’s loan modification plan raised the expectations of many but satisfied only a few, a large group of distressed homeowners is wondering the same thing.

New research suggests that when a home’s value falls below 75 percent of the amount owed on the mortgage, the owner starts to think hard about walking away, even if he or she has the money to keep paying.

In a situation without precedent in the modern era, millions of Americans are in this bleak position. Whether, or how, to help them is one of the biggest questions the Obama administration confronts as it seeks a housing policy that would contribute to the economic recovery.

“We haven’t yet found a way of dealing with this that would, we think, be practical on a large scale,” the assistant Treasury secretary for financial stability, Herbert M. Allison Jr., said in a recent briefing.

The number of Americans who owed more than their homes were worth was virtually nil when the real estate collapse began in mid-2006, but by the third quarter of 2009, an estimated 4.5 million homeowners had reached the critical threshold, with their home’s value dropping below 75 percent of the mortgage balance.

They are stretched, aggrieved and restless. With figures released last week showing that the real estate market was stalling again, their numbers are now projected to climb to a peak of 5.1 million by June — about 10 percent of all Americans with mortgages.

“We’re now at the point of maximum vulnerability,” said Sam Khater, a senior economist with First American CoreLogic, the firm that conducted the recent research. “People’s emotional attachment to their property is melting into the air.”

 

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