Ken Harney — Go ahead, stiff a lender

<i>Academic paper says underwater borrowers should get out of emotional fog and walk away from homes</i>

Go ahead. Break the chains. Stop paying your mortgage if you owe more than the house is worth. And most important: Don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t think you’re doing something morally wrong.

That’s the incendiary core message of a new academic paper by Brent T. White, a University of Arizona law school professor, titled “Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis.”

White argues that far more of the estimated 15 million American homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages should stiff their lenders and take a hike.

Doing so, he suggests, could save some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars that they “have no reasonable prospect of recouping” in the years ahead. Plus, the penalties are nowhere near as painful or long-lasting as they might assume.

“Homeowners should be walking away in droves,” according to White. “But they aren’t. And it’s not because the financial costs of foreclosure outweigh the benefits.”

Sure, credit scores get whacked when you walk away, he acknowledges. But as long as you stay current with other creditors, “one can have a good credit rating again … within two years after a foreclosure.”

Better yet, you can default “strategically”: buy all the major items you’ll need for the next couple of years — a new car, even a new house — just before you pull the plug on your current mortgage lender.

What kind of law school professorial advice is this? Aren’t mortgages legal contracts? In an interview, White said that in so-called anti-deficiency states such as Arizona and California, mortgage lenders have limited or no legal rights to pursue defaulting homeowners’ assets beyond the house itself. In other states, lenders may decide it’s not worth the legal expense to pursue walkaways.

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The main point, he said, is that too often people’s “emotions” get in the way of clear financial thinking, turning them into what he calls “woodheads” — “individuals who choose not to act in their own self-interest.” Most owners are too worried about feelings of shame and embarrassment following a foreclosure, and ignore the powerful financial reasons for doing so.

Buttressing these emotions is a system that White labels “the social control of the housing crisis” — pressures and messages continually sent to consumers by the “social control agents,” namely banks, government and the media. The mantra these agents — all the way up to President Barack Obama — pound into owners’ heads, said White, is that “voluntarily defaulting on a mortgage is immoral.”

Yet there is an inherent imbalance in the borrower-lender relationship that makes this message unfair to consumers: Banks set the rules during the housing boom, handing out home loans with no down payments, no income checks and inflated appraisals. Now that property values have dropped 20 to 50 percent in many areas, banks have been slow to modify troubled mortgages and reluctant to reduce principal debts.

Only when homeowners cut through the emotional fog and default strategically in large numbers, White argues, will this inequitable situation be addressed.

How does White’s 52-page manifesto go over with mortgage lenders? Predictably, not well. Officials at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — which fund the bulk of new mortgages nationwide — disputed White’s characterization of how quickly after foreclosure a walkaway borrower can obtain a new loan. It’s not three years, they said; it’s a minimum of five.

“Borrowers who walk away from their mortgage obligations face serious consequences,” including severely depressed credit scores for extended periods, said Brian Faith of Fannie Mae. In addition, he said, “there’s a moral dimension to this, as homeowners who simply abandon their homes contribute to the destabilization of their neighborhood and community.”

Lewis Ranieri, CEO of several major mortgage-related companies, called White’s entire argument “incredibly irresponsible and misinformed.”

Not only is the professor urging consumers to break legally binding contracts, said Ranieri, but if large numbers of them did so it would send home mortgage rates soaring and “tear apart the very basis” upon which mortgage lending rests — the understanding that borrowers will honor their commitment and pay back the money they borrowed.

Ken Harney is a real estate columnist for the Washington Post.