The truth about upside-down mortgages

A new study shows that, contrary to the the popular impression that upside-down mortgages are generally due to adverse market movements and resetting ARMs, most are actually due to reckless choices made by the borrower:

In crafting programs to prevent foreclosures, policymakers have assumed that the primary reason homeowners owe more on their home than it is worth is that they bought at the top of the market. In other words, they’ve lost equity primarily through forces beyond their control.

A new study challenges this premise and finds that excessive borrowing may have played as great a role.

Michael LaCour-Little, a finance professor at California State University at Fullerton, looked at 4,000 foreclosures in Southern California from 2006-08. He found that, at least in Southern California, borrowers who defaulted on their mortgages didn’t purchase their homes at the top of the market. Instead, the average acquisition was made in 2002 and many homes lost to foreclosure were bought in the 1990s. More than half of all borrowers who lost their homes had already refinanced at least once, and four out of five had a second mortgage.

The original loan-to-value ratio for these borrowers stood at a reasonable 84%, but second and third liens left homeowners with a combined loan-to-value ratio of about 150% by the time of the foreclosure sale date.

Borrowers, meanwhile, took out around $2 billion in equity from their homes, or nearly eight times the $262 million that they put into their homes. Lenders lost around four times as much as borrowers, seeing $1 billion in losses.

That last figure is staggering: these borrowers took eight times the amount of money out of their houses as they put in. Now the government is going to step in to try to “save” them?

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