John Williams and I were talking about “strategic defaults.” That’s the current term for the situation where people walk away from their mortgaged home, figuring that its value has dropped so far that they will never make anything on it. Williams and I both opposed the practice. Here is how some other people feel.">
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The Moral Dilemma of “Strategic Defaults”

Last Wednesday on WGN Radio, John Williams and I were talking about “strategic defaults.” That’s the current term for the situation where people walk away from their mortgaged home, figuring that its value has dropped so far that they will never make anything on it. Williams and I both opposed the practice. Here is how some other people feel.

Last Wednesday on WGN Radio, John Williams and I were talking about “strategic defaults.” That’s the current term for the situation where people walk away from their mortgaged home, figuring that its value has dropped so far that they will never make anything on it. Williams and I both opposed the practice. Here is how some other people feel.

  • Kathy is a Chicagoan who moved to Florida a few years ago when she married a man who had a two-bedroom condo there that cost him $190,000. Based on the sale prices of condos in their development, Kathy estimates the home is now worth only $45,000. “We stopped paying in February, after 18 months of agonizing about this,” she says. Now they are looking at handing the condo back to the bank and renting a four-bedroom house—about twice the square footage of the condo—for approximately the same amount of money as the condo’s $1,700 monthly payment (including taxes and assessments).

“John [Williams] is saying we have a moral obligation,” Kathy says. “No, we don’t. We have a legal obligation, and if we don’t meet that obligation, the bank will take back the house. We’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll take that option. You can have the house.’”

  • Bob is a mail carrier who lives in a three-bedroom ranch house in Ingleside that he bought in 1992. His mortgages, taken when the house was valued at $167,000, total $140,000, but the house’s value is now at or below $130,000. Rate hikes on Bob’s adjustable-rate mortgage have pushed his monthly payment from $1,223 a month to $1,506, half his monthly take-home pay.

“Several [mortgage brokers] told me to stop paying and just pile up that money,” he says. “They said it will take [the bank] at least a year to evict me, and if I’ve been saving up the money I can rent even with bad credit, because I’ll have six months or a year of rent to put down in advance.” Bob would also be in a position to pay off his credit cards and some other debts. But Bob has no plans to walk away. “I still feel the moral obligation,” he says. “I’ve lived in this house a long time, and I would like someday to die in it. But given my current situation, it will probably be from starvation.”

  • Phyllis and her husband live in Batavia. In 2007 they bought a house in Phoenix for about $200,000; their daughter and son-in-law live in it and pay a portion of the mortgage. The house is now worth less than half its purchase price. “We’ll never break even on it,” Phyllis says. They remain current on the payments, but Phyllis says that this is for two reasons only: they don’t have another home lined up for their daughter’s young family, and Phyllis’s husband is opposed to walking away for moral reasons. (He’s also worried about the hit to their credit rating.) “If this works out financially better for my family,” Phyllis says, “then we should do it. A bank or [corporation] would do the same thing.”

As she contemplates her next step, Phyllis, like Kathy and Bob, feels the moral sting diminish a little every time she reads about another bank or financial firm handing out big bonuses or living it up after being bailed out by the federal government. “Sometimes,” she says, “you just get tired of being screwed all the time.”

LISTEN online to WGN Radio (720 AM) today at about 12:35 p.m., when Williams and I will discuss these cases.

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