Why are so many homeowners underwater on their mortgages?
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.
“[W]hile house price declines were important in explaining the incidence of negative equity, its magnitude was more strongly influenced by increased debt usage,” writes Mr. LaCour-Little. “Hence, borrower behavior, rather than housing market forces, is the predominant factor affecting outcomes.”
If other housing markets across the country offer similar findings, then the study argues that current “policies aimed at protecting homeowners from foreclosure are misguided” because lenders, and not borrowers, have born the lion’s share of economic losses.
Borrowers that bought homes without ever putting any or little equity in their homes could have seen huge returns on investment simply by extracting cash through refinancing. “Why such borrowers should enjoy any special government benefits such as waiver of the income taxation on debt forgiveness or subsidized loan modifications to reduce their borrowing costs is at best unclear,” the authors write.
Michael is a co-author of mine (and was a student at Wisconsin while I taught there), and has a gift for slicing up mortgage data. On the policy question, we might think about treating the half who did not refinance differently, as they were drowned by the flood.