Last Updated Dec 23, 2009 10:06 AM EST
These folks are different from home owners who can no longer make payments because they lost a job; government programs are in place to help them. No, these "strategic defaulters" are making the calculation that they will be better off financially in the long run, even if their credit rating becomes radioactive for a while.
"Owners can do the math: money saved on the mortgage versus money spent for rent versus costs of an abysmal credit rating for five years," writes Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. "If they do not want to make a major purchase for those years the decision is easy. Indeed, defaulters may end up renting a fancier house, at a lower net cost, in the same neighborhood. Some people net enough for vacations."Moralists and neighbors may have a problem with this action, but let's remember that many of these homes were purchased during the housing bubble as an investment, not as a place to set down roots. Defaulting now when the investment no longer pays off is, well, rational from that perspective, Retsinas observes.
But here is the bigger problem if strategic defaults continue to increase. Damage to the overall economy could be significant.
"In 2009, almost 25 percent had negative equity," Retsinas writes. "If even half of those owners defaulted, there would be more depressed neighborhoods, more troubled banks -- and, looking not too far into the future, stringent lending standards that would shut the doors of home ownership to the next generation. Lenders calculate risk: adding the risk of 'strategic defaults' to their calculus would lead to higher down payments and higher borrowing rates."Retsinas' bigger point, I believe, is that America created this problem by encouraging a system that handed out credit like candy, wildly inflated property values, and turned homes into ATM machines. There is no government sponsored fix waiting in the wings.