Sep 14, 2010

The Government and Banks May Punish "Strategic Defaults"

What Are Strategic Defaults?

A number of articles have recently appeared in leading newspapers and magazines reporting that more and more people are engaging in what they call "strategic defaults," defined as not paying your mortgage when you can afford to do so.

The typical story involves a family with a decent income who bought into the housing market when it was high and who now are upside down on their mortgage payments. Rather than continuing to the keep the mortgage current, this family decides to remain in the home without paying the mortgage and then moving when forced to do so (usually due to foreclosure).

This tactic is similar to the advice I give clients who would benefit from stopping their mortgage payments in order to save money to use when they must leave their homes. The difference is that most of the people I speak to really can't afford their mortgage anyway (so foreclosure is probably inevitable). By stopping their mortgage payments, these folks are just trying to cut losses and save some money which they'll need to find new housing at some point in the future.

Proposed Government Actions to Discourage Strategic Defaults

It is not against any law to stop paying your mortgage, whatever the reason. However, the banking industry is pressuring lawmakers and the government housing entities (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration) to punish people who have engaged in strategic defaults.

Effective October 1, 2010, Fannie Mae will not purchase any mortgage made to a person who has engaged in a strategic default within the past seven years, and Freddie Mac is expected to follow suit. Since almost all mortgages are purchased Fannie or Freddie for securitization and resale, if this happens to you, you will probably be banned from the home mortgage market for seven years.

And it gets worse. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill [H.R. 5072, FHA Reform Act of 2010] that would deny insurance under the Federal Housing Administration to anyone who has engaged in a strategic default. Since FHA insurance is a requirement for many mortgages, this law (if passed by the Senate) might prevent you from obtaining a new mortgage loan -- forever.

Distinguishing Between Strategic Defaulters and Truly Distressed Homeowners

But how will "strategic default" be defined by the law? The House bill leaves the definition of "strategic default" to the HUD Secretary. But figuring out what is and isn't a strategic default won't be an easy task. What if you obtained a modification "in good faith" but then purposely re-default? Do you need to show proof of unemployment or other hardship? If differentiating between strategic defaulters and truly distressed borrowers were an easy task, laws would be better able to distinguish between the two groups. But it's not an easy task, and the laws are unlikely to do a good job of distinguishing between the two groups. 

Next up: Using the loan modification process to avoid a "strategic default" accusation.