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The Nation's Housing

Walking away from your mortgage? There's a price

WASHINGTON — The country's two largest sources of mortgage money have a blunt warning for anyone thinking about joining the growing "walkaway" trend, where homeowners stop making payments and months later send the house keys back to their lender: You will feel the pain.

On March 31, Fannie Mae sent out new guidelines to lenders aimed at walkaways and other foreclosure situations. Fannie will now prohibit foreclosed borrowers from obtaining another mortgage through the giant investor for five years, unless there are "documented extenuating circumstances." In those cases, the mortgage prohibition is for three years.

Even after five years, borrowers with foreclosures in their files will be required to make at least a 10 percent down payment, and will need minimum FICO credit scores of 680.

Freddie Mac, Fannie's rival, counts foreclosures as major credit blots for seven years, and a senior official said the company is now aggressively pursuing some walkaway borrowers "to preserve our deficiency rights" where permitted under state law.

The walkaway trend is particularly noteworthy in former housing boom markets — California, Florida and Nevada, among others — where many homeowners find themselves upside down on their loans, owing tens of thousands more than the current market value of their houses. If they invested little or nothing in down payments, some owners reason, continuing to make payments, even if they can afford to, may be throwing good money after bad.

Foreclosure is serious

A number of Web sites have popped up this year claiming to cut the hassles of bailing out of a mortgage. One company promises that clients "will be able to live in (the) home for up to eight months with no mortgage payments," after paying $895 for a customized plan. The same site says it will provide clients with "legal credit repair" to "improve your FICO scores."

Another Web site claims that "your credit can be repaired and (you will) be able to purchase a house in as few as two years" — after paying a $495 fee. Still another company says walkaways can expect "up to one year living payment free" as the lender goes about filing for foreclosure. That company charges $995 for its how-to-do-it kit.

Fair Isaac Corp., developer of the FICO scores used in most mortgage transactions, is unhappy at any suggestion that a foreclosure could be minimized or wiped away in a short period of time. Its scoring model counts foreclosure as a long-standing and severe event, nearly comparable to bankruptcy, with negative consequences for all forms of credit that walkaways might seek to obtain. That includes credit card applications, auto loans, student loans, and even insurance and employment.

FICO spokesman Craig Watts said that the impact of a foreclosure on an individual's score depends heavily on the payment history, length and number of credit tradelines in a consumer's file, but "it is always significant."

Robin Stout Migala, consumer outreach manager for Freddie Mac, said "there are so many bad reasons for walking away" from a home loan. Not only are borrowers' credit standings ruined, forcing them into excessively high interest rates on any credit they can manage to obtain. But they also face other potential problems, including federal income tax liabilities.

Expect years of pain

Federal legislation enacted last year lets homeowners who negotiate loan modifications with lenders and have portions of their principal debt eliminated escape income tax liability for the amount forgiven. Walkaway borrowers, by contrast, have nothing forgiven, and the IRS may demand income taxes on the balance they never paid, according to Migala.

Many borrowers facing foreclosure today have endured serious financial crises, said Migala — loss of employment, loss of an income-earning spouse, medical issues, predatory loan terms — that led to their inability to make their mortgage payments.

When they apply for a loan from either Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, she said, the standard application form asks whether they have ever experienced a foreclosure or handed over their deed in lieu of foreclosure.

If applicants check "yes," the loan is immediately shifted to manual underwriting. Every piece of information is scrutinized by underwriters, who probe for the facts surrounding the loss of the house.

For borrowers who faced genuine financial hardships leading to foreclosure, underwriters are likely to be more sympathetic a few years down the road. But if you walk away, here's the deal: Don't expect to get a new home loan, certainly not one with favorable terms, for five to seven years.

That's no matter what some promoter online promised you.

Kenneth R. Harney can be reached at kenharney@earthlink.net.

Walking away from your mortgage? There's a price 04/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 1:32pm]
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