Why homeowners stop making payments they can afford

Miami HeraldOctober 25, 2009 

Andres Duque thought he got a real steal when he paid $125,000 for his Little Haiti condo. But four years later, similar units are selling for $35,000 and even less.

And so, faced with the prospect of being underwater on his mortgage -- owing more than the unit is worth -- for the next 20 years, Duque, 33, made what seemed to him like a rational choice: to cut and run.

He stopped paying the mortgage, basically forcing the lender to take the condo off his hands through foreclosure.

"I was able to pay off all my credit cards," said Duque, who is biding his time in the condo, waiting until they come and evict him. "In a way, it was the best thing that happened to me because all my income is not being consumed by this freaking monster of a debt."

Duque's game plan is known as a strategic default -- when borrowers walk away from loans, even if they can afford the payments. Here is a look at the benefits, the risks and the ethics of such a move.

As property values have plummeted by an average of 50 percent, such strategic defaults now make up a sizable chunk of South Florida's foreclosures. In the fourth quarter of last year, they accounted for an estimated 28 percent of all defaults in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to recent research from the credit bureau Experian and Oliver Wyman, a New York-based international consulting firm.

That's up from 8 percent in the same quarter two years ago. With property values down even further now, researchers are certain the numbers have risen even more.

With the social stigma of foreclosure eroding, experts say it is becoming easier for discouraged borrowers to justify throwing in the towel.

"People are saying, 'Everyone is doing this, and I do not feel any compunction in fashioning my own bailout,'" said Roy Oppenheim, a Weston real-estate and foreclosure defense attorney who conducts weekly seminars that discuss strategic defaults and other financial options for distressed borrowers.

South Florida is already a veritable Atlantis of underwater borrowers. In September, homeowners here collectively owed $62.7 billion more than their homes were worth, according to an analysis by First American CoreLogic. The analysis found that about half of all outstanding mortgages in Miami-Dade and Broward are underwater.

Among those who bought in Broward in 2006, the median negative equity was $75,000 as of March. In Miami-Dade, the figure was $63,000, the Web-based real-estate service firm Zillow.com reports. Negative equity refers to the difference between a loan balance and the market value of a home.

"I wouldn't blame borrowers who knew they were facing significant losses even if they could afford to stay," said Andrea Heuson, a finance professor at the University of Miami. "Every day you wake up, you are reminded how much you paid for something, and then you read every day in the newspaper how much prices have fallen."

Read more at MiamiHerald.com

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