Walking Away and Keeping Your House: Strategic Default Strategy

A provocative paper by Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona, makes the case that borrowers are actually suffering from a “norm asymmetry.” In other words, they think they are obligated to repay their loans even if it is not in their financial interest to do so, while their lenders are free to do whatever maximizes profits. It’s as if borrowers are playing in a poker game in which they are the only ones who think bluffing is unethical.

borrowers in nonrecourse states pay extra for the right to default without recourse. In a report prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Susan Woodward, an economist, estimated that home buyers in such states paid an extra $800 in closing costs for each $100,000 they borrowed. These fees are not made explicit to the borrower, but if they were, more people might be willing to default, figuring that they had paid for the right to do so.

Editor’s Note: Here is a strategy straight out of the tax shelter playbook that could result in widespread relief for homeowners underwater. It comes from a high-finance tax shelter expert who shall remain unnamed. He and a group of other people with real money are thinking of establishing a clearinghouse for these transactions.The author of this strategy ranks very high in finance and law but he cautions, as do I, that you should utilize the services of only the most sophisticated property lawyers licensed to do business in appropriate jurisdictions before initiating any action under this delightful reversal of fortune, restoring equity, possession and clearing title to the millions of properties that could fall under the rubric of his plan. He even invites others to compete with his group, starting their own clearing houses (like a dating service) since he obviously could not handle all the volume.

The bottom line is that it leaves you in your home paying low rent on a long-term lease, forces the pretender lender (non-creditor) to file a judicial foreclosure, and throws a monkey wrench into the current  foreclosure scheme. I am not endorsing it, just reporting it. This is not legal advice. It is for information and entertainment purposes.

  1. John Smith and Mary Jones each own homes that are underwater. Maybe they live near each other, maybe they don’t. To make it simple let’s assume they are in the same subdivision in the same model house and each owes $500,000 on a house that is now worth $250,000. Their payments for amortization and interest are currently $3500 per month. The likelihood that their homes will ever be worth more than the principal due on the mortgage is zero.
  2. John and Mary are both up to date on their payments but considering just walking away because they have no stake in the outcome. Rents for comparable homes in their neighborhoods are a fraction of what they are paying monthly now on a mortgage based upon a false appraisal value.
  3. In those states where mortgages are officially or unofficially “non-recourse” they can’t be sued for the loss that the bank takes on repossession, sale or foreclosure.
  4. John and Mary find out about each other and enter into the following deal:
  5. First, John and Mary enter into 15 year lease wherein Mary takes possession of John’s house and pays $1,000 per month in a net-net lease (Tenant pays all expenses — taxes, insurance, maintenance and utilities). There are some laws around (Federal and State) that state that even if the house is foreclosed, the “Buyer” must honor the terms of the lease. But even in those jurisdictions where the lease itself is subject to being foreclosed, John and Mary agree to RECORD the lease along with an option to purchase the house for $250,000 (fair market value) wherein the seller takes a note for the balance at a 3% interest rate amortized over 30 years.
  6. So now Mary can have possession of the John house under a lease like any tenant. And she has an option to purchase the house for $250,000. And it’s all recorded just like the state’s recording statutes say you should.
  7. Second, John and Mary enter into a 15 year lease wherein John takes possession of Mary’s house and pays $1,000 per month in a net-net lease (Tenant pays all expenses — taxes, insurance, maintenance and utilities). There are some laws around (Federal and State) that state that even if the house is foreclosed, the “Buyer” must honor the terms of the lease. But even in those jurisdictions where the lease itself is subject to being foreclosed, John and Mary agree to RECORD the lease along with an option to purchase the house for $250,000 (fair market value) wherein the seller takes a note for the balance at a 3% interest rate amortized over 30 years.
  8. So now John can have possession of the Mary house under a lease like any tenant. And he has an option to purchase the house for $250,000. And it’s all recorded just like the state’s recording statutes say you should.
  9. Third, John and Mary enter into a sublease (expressly permitted under the terms of the original lease) where in John (or his wife or other relative) sublet the John house from Mary for $1100 per month.
  10. So John now has rights to possession of the John house under a sublease. In other words, he doesn’t move.
  11. Fourth John and Mary enter into a sublease (expressly permitted under the terms of the original lease) where in Mary (or her husband or other relative) sublet the Mary house from John for$1100 per month.
  12. So Mary now has rights to possession of the Mary house under a sublease. In other words, she doesn’t move.
  13. Fifth, under terms expressly allowed in the lease and sublease, John and Mary SWAP options to purchase and record that instrument as well as an assignment.
  14. So now John has an option to purchase the home he started with for $250,000 and Mary has an option to purchase the home she started with for $250,000 and both of them are now tenants in their own homes.
  15. Presumably under this plan eviction or unlawful detainer is not an option for anyone claiming to be a creditor, wanting to foreclose. Obviously you would want to consult with a very knowledgeable property lawyer licensed in the appropriate jurisdiction before launching this strategy.
  16. In the event of foreclosure, even in a non-judicial state, would be subject to rules requiring a judicial foreclosure which means the pretender lender would be required to plead and prove their status as creditor and their right to collect on the note and foreclose on the mortgage.
  17. Meanwhile, after all their documents are duly recorded, John and Mary start paying rent pursuant to their sublease and stop paying anyone on the mortgages.
  18. Any would-be forecloser would probably have a claim to collect that rent, but other than that they are stuck with a house where they got title (under dubious color of authority) without any right to possession (unless they prove a case to the contrary — the burden is on them).
  19. If you want to slip in a poison pill, you could put a provision in the lease that in the event of foreclosure or any proceedings that threaten dispossession or derogation of the lease rights, the lease converts from a net-net lease to a gross lease so the party getting title still gets the rent payment but now is required to pay the taxes, insurance and maintenance. Hence the commencement of foreclosure proceedings would trigger a negative cash flow for the would-be forecloser.
  20. To further poison the well, you could provide expressly in the lease that the failure of the landlord or successor to the Landlord to properly maintain tax, insurance and maintenance payments on the property is a material breach, triggering the right of the Tenant to withhold rent payments, and triggering a reduction of the option price from $250,000 to $125,000 with the same terms — tender of a  note, unsecured, for the full purchase price payable in equal monthly installments of interest and principal.

Not much difference than the chain of securitization is it?

January 24, 2010
Economic View New York Times

Underwater, but Will They Leave the Pool?

By RICHARD H. THALER

MUCH has been said about the high rate of home foreclosures, but the most interesting question may be this: Why is the mortgage default rate so low?

After all, millions of American homeowners are “underwater,” meaning that they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. In Nevada, nearly two-thirds of homeowners are in this category. Yet most of them are dutifully continuing to pay their mortgages, despite substantial financial incentives for walking away from them.

A family that financed the entire purchase of a $600,000 home in 2006 could now find itself still owing most of that mortgage, even though the home is now worth only $300,000. The family could rent a similar home for much less than its monthly mortgage payment, saving thousands of dollars a year and hundreds of thousands over a decade.

Some homeowners may keep paying because they think it’s immoral to default. This view has been reinforced by government officials like former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who while in office said that anyone who walked away from a mortgage would be “simply a speculator — and one who is not honoring his obligation.” (The irony of a former investment banker denouncing speculation seems to have been lost on him.)

But does this really come down to a question of morality?

A provocative paper by Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona, makes the case that borrowers are actually suffering from a “norm asymmetry.” In other words, they think they are obligated to repay their loans even if it is not in their financial interest to do so, while their lenders are free to do whatever maximizes profits. It’s as if borrowers are playing in a poker game in which they are the only ones who think bluffing is unethical.

That norm might have been appropriate when the lender was the local banker. More commonly these days, however, the loan was initiated by an aggressive mortgage broker who maximized his fees at the expense of the borrower’s costs, while the debt was packaged and sold to investors who bought mortgage-backed securities in the hope of earning high returns, using models that predicted possible default rates.

The morality argument is especially weak in a state like California or Arizona, where mortgages are so-called nonrecourse loans. That means the mortgage is secured by the home itself; in a default, the lender has no claim on a borrower’s other possessions. Nonrecourse mortgages may be viewed as financial transactions in which the borrower has the explicit option of giving the lender the keys to the house and walking away. Under these circumstances, deciding whether to default might be no more controversial than deciding whether to claim insurance after your house burns down.

In fact, borrowers in nonrecourse states pay extra for the right to default without recourse. In a report prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Susan Woodward, an economist, estimated that home buyers in such states paid an extra $800 in closing costs for each $100,000 they borrowed. These fees are not made explicit to the borrower, but if they were, more people might be willing to default, figuring that they had paid for the right to do so.

Morality aside, there are other factors deterring “strategic defaults,” whether in recourse or nonrecourse states. These include the economic and emotional costs of giving up one’s home and moving, the perceived social stigma of defaulting, and a serious hit to a borrower’s credit rating. Still, if they added up these costs, many households might find them to be far less than the cost of paying off an underwater mortgage.

An important implication is that we could be facing another wave of foreclosures, spurred less by spells of unemployment and more by strategic thinking. Research shows that bankruptcies and foreclosures are “contagious.” People are less likely to think it’s immoral to walk away from their home if they know others who have done so. And if enough people do it, the stigma begins to erode.

A spurt of strategic defaults in a neighborhood might also reduce some other psychic costs. For example, defaulting is more attractive if I can rent a nearby house that is much like mine (whose owner has also defaulted) without taking my children away from their friends and their school.

So far, lenders have been reluctant to renegotiate mortgages, and government programs to stimulate renegotiation have not gained much traction.

Eric Posner, a law professor, and Luigi Zingales, an economist, both from the University of Chicago, have made an interesting suggestion: Any homeowner whose mortgage is underwater and who lives in a ZIP code where home prices have fallen at least 20 percent should be eligible for a loan modification. The bank would be required to reduce the mortgage by the average price reduction of homes in the neighborhood. In return, it would get 50 percent of the average gain in neighborhood prices — if there is one — when the house is eventually sold.

Because their homes would no longer be underwater, many people would no longer have a reason to default. And they would be motivated to maintain their homes because, if they later sold for more than the average price increase, they would keep all the extra profit.

Banks are unlikely to endorse this if they think people will keep paying off their mortgages. But if a new wave of foreclosures begins, the banks, too, would be better off under this plan. Rather than getting only the house’s foreclosure value, they would also get part of the eventual upside when the owner voluntarily sold the house.

This plan, which would require Congressional action, would not cost the government anything. It may not be perfect, but something like it may be necessary to head off a tsunami of strategic defaults.

Richard H. Thaler is a professor of economics and behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

Option ARMs Come Back into Center Stage: 350,000 Active Option ARMs with over 200,000 in California. 78 Percent of Option ARMs have yet to hit Recast Dates.

Option ARMs Come Back into Center Stage: 350,000 Active Option ARMs with over 200,000 in California. 78 Percent of Option ARMs have yet to hit Recast Dates.

Option ARMs are the gift that keeps on giving this holiday season.  As it turns out, these pesky toxic mortgages are still sitting waiting to hit recast periods.  Like a street vendor taco these things went down nicely and appeared cheap but came with a hefty aftermath.  The last option ARMs were made in 2007 yet they are still causing much pain in the housing market.  Attorney General Jerry Brown has requested data from the top 10 issuers of option ARMs with a deadline date of November 23.  It’ll be interesting to see what is released from the AG’s office.  However, Standard & Poors issued a report on option ARMs last week and found that much of the problems with these loans are still to come.

One of the stunning points found was that 93 percent of option ARM borrowers decided to go with the negative amortization option otherwise known as the “minimum payment” option.  This is something we have established from many fronts and data sets.  The bottom line is the vast majority went with negative amortization and this grew the actual balance owed.  Yet one of the new findings in the report was that 78 percent of all outstanding option ARMs have yet to hit major recast points.  Given that 58 percent of option ARMs are here in California, this is a one state wrecking ball:

In total, some 350,000 option ARMs are still active nationwide.  Over 200,000 of these loans are here in California.  The most risky option as we have established with option ARMs is the negative amortization payment:

Now why was this payment such a poor choice?  Well as the California housing market fell by 50 percent from its peak, the actual balance on many option ARMs was going up.  So not only is the home underwater from the initial starting point, the loan taken out on the home has increased on 90+ percent of these borrowers.  This is like negative equity squared.  So deep are these loans in negative equity territory that not even HAMP can save them.  Oh, and speaking of HAMP, it is turning out to be a colossal failure as expected:

“(NY Times) Capitol Hill aides in regular contact with senior Treasury officials say a consensus has emerged inside the department that the program has proved inadequate, necessitating a new approach. But discussions have yet to reach the point of mapping out new options, the aides say.

“People who work on this on a day-to-day basis are vested enough in it that they think there’s a need to do a course correction rather than a wholesale rethink,” said a Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition he not be named for fear of angering the administration. “But at senior levels, where people are looking at this and thinking ‘Good God,’ there’s a sense that we need to think about doing something more.”

I know many delusional folks in California were thinking that somehow the quiet on the option ARM front had to do with the masterful success of HAMP.  Of course, these loans never qualified for HAMP but that is beside the point.  HAMP is failing because of a simple reason.  Negative equity.  Here in California, we have millions underwater.  Those with option ARMs are not only underwater, they are going to have massive spikes in their monthly payments at a time when the California unemployment rate is the highest in record keeping history.  The problem is Wall Street has sucked up all the taxpayer bailouts and for what?  To keep the crony welfare investment banks ticking?  Trillions of dollars out the door and the real economy is still troubled.  HAMP had the naïve premise that the only problem was high interest rates and the problem with the housing market was toxic mortgages.  Well, the actual problem is thousands of homes are still valued at bubble prices and with stagnant wages for a decade, people can’t afford homes without going massively into debt.  Prime, near prime, and subprime means little when you have no income and that is why even prime defaults are spiking.  The option ARM had such an allure for the gold rush California home speculator because it sidestepped that tiny little caveat of income.  It allowed maximum leverage without the valid income support.  80 percent of option ARMs went stated income.  In other words, people made crap up like saying they made $200,000 when they were pulling $75,000 to qualify for that $600,000 home:

“(CNN) There is another little problem that many option-ARM borrowers seeking refinancing would face: “Upwards of 80% of were stated-income loans,” said Westerback.

These are the so-called “liar loans” in which lenders did not verify that borrowers earned as much money as they said they did. Lenders may not be able to modify mortgages because many of the borrowers’ income could not stand up to the scrutiny. Borrowers may also not want to go through underwriting again because they could be held legally liable for deliberate inaccuracies on their original applications.

Add to those conditions the still fragile economy and high unemployment rates, and you have a recipe for disaster.”

As people chime in about stabilization, California is still hovering near the bottom in terms of prices.  The only reason we have seen prices move slightly up is because the massive jump into foreclosed homes, the home buyer tax credit, Fed buying securities to lower mortgage rates, and all these phony moratoriums that we are now seeing are basically delaying reality for many.  Inventory is artificially low because of the shadow inventory.

People ask for a solution.  Here it is:  We should have (and still should) break up the banks into pieces that are small enough to fail.  Bring back Glass-Steagall with some teeth.  Commercial and investment banking should be put into silos that don’t even come close to one another.  Banks that need to fail should.  After all, the government now backs 90+ percent of all mortgages so why do we even need them?  A quick assessment should have been made from day one on housing.  Those that couldn’t afford their homes should have gotten assistance into rentals.  Here’s a thought.  Why didn’t we create a program where those who had no way of paying on an overpriced home were given a tax break to rent a place in an empty commercial real estate development?  Right there you kill two birds with one stone.  Of course, those on Wall Street and those in our government are two sides of the same coin.  For the past three decades they have systematically neutered our government to the point of it being a bread and circus spectacle.

You think the 200,000 option ARM borrowers in California are sitting in a good spot?  Let us look at negative equity rates for a few metro areas since this is the largest predictor of future foreclosures:

If you look at the Inland Empire and the Phoenix metro area, they virtually reflect one another.  In fact, both areas have negative equity rates of 54% of all mortgage holders.  This is incredible.  Half of all borrowers are underwater in these big regions.  But look at the largest block of mortgages in California clustered in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area.  1.5 million mortgages and 400,000+ are underwater.  You think this is going to bode well for home prices as option ARMs hit their recast dates in stride from 2010 to 2012?  I put in a more normal area of Dallas above and you can see what a normal market looks like.  Even there, you can see that negative equity is still an issue.  But compare that to California and it is another story completely.  What does this mean?  The middle market is certainly going to take major hits once these loans hit their recast dates.  If they don’t qualify for HAMP, then what?  S&P in their report gives an example of a hypothetical $400,000 mortgage:

The payment flat out doubles at the recast date.  Do you think people are going to be able to come up with an extra $1,200 per month with no problems?  You know what the typical mortgage payment for a home bought last month in California totaled?  $1,097.  That is the price of the hypothetical increase in the priciest state in the U.S.  So yes sales are happening but at a much lower end.  How is this going to help those in negative equity on more expensive homes?  Take a look at the raw numbers for the state:

34 percent of all California mortgages are underwater.  You can rest assured that 80+ percent of those option ARMs are underwater.  As the above highlights, those mortgages are still here and they are still toxic.

Option ARMs fall under a bigger umbrella of Alt-A loans.  California has over 700,000 active Alt-A loans.  The bulk of the 200,000+ California option ARMs fall under this category.  But the bulk of these loans are also toxic mortgage waste.  These will go off as well.  These are actually part of the shadow inventory including those who simply stop paying but banks sit back and do absolutely nothing.  Is that really a solution?  Take a look at where the Alt-A loans are in California:

Los Angeles and Orange counties hold the biggest number of Alt-A and option ARM loans.  Do you really think this is a bottom?  It might be for a home in the Inland Empire selling for $100,000 or $150,000 depending on local area dynamics.  But many cities in Los Angeles and Orange County are vastly overpriced.  The above dynamics look similar to how subprime was building up in 2006 and 2007 before the market imploded.  Yet somehow things are now different.

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