WASHINGTON — A significant number of Americans are now willing to lose their house to save the stuff that's in it.
That kitchen-table calculus provides a window into the deep-seated changes in consumer psyche wrought by the financial crisis.
Traditionally, home loans have perched at the top of the payment hierarchy as families have strived to ensure a roof stayed over their heads. But as Americans unload more than $100 billion in debt leftover from the economic boom, many households face a daunting question: What to pay off first?
The answer increasingly has become the credit card. According to statistics from credit bureau TransUnion, the number of consumers who default on their mortgages but continue to pay their credit cards on time has remained well above normal, even as the country has moved into an economic recovery.
The steady climb — up from 37 percent before the recession to more than half at the end of last year — has some financial experts questioning whether the shift reflects a permanent change in how families manage their personal balance sheets.
"If you get into the mind-set of a person experiencing financial distress, this is a perfectly rational and logical response," said Mark Cole, executive vice president of CredAbility, a nonprofit education and credit counseling firm. "They didn't have enough in savings, and credit cards became the shock absorber."
Under the new payment hierarchy, their homes have become a liability and the consequences of skipping a mortgage payment seem far away, especially as legal wrangling over foreclosure can stretch for months. A credit card, on the other hand, can help them satisfy the immediate demands of paying for food or keeping the lights on.
Jeff Horton of Orlando stopped paying the mortgage on his home 19 months ago, and said he still hasn't heard from his lender, Bank of America. He bought the home in 2007 for $265,000 only to find out that the value plunged to less than half that a year later.
A condo he purchased in late 2005 for $140,000 is now worth $34,000, he said. Horton said he can't even rent the properties at a price that would cover his mortgages.
"It's absurd," he said. "I'm completely bound to these properties. I can't get rid of them."
Horton said that his condo has gone through foreclosure, and that he knows it will take years to repair his credit. But he figures it could take even longer for the value of his home to recover.
As for his credit card, student loans and car note? "I pay all that stuff. I'm not behind on anything else. Never have been," Horton said.
Financial advisers caution that the mortgage is still the most important debt to pay on time.
"A credit card bill should not be paid until after all those other things can be paid," said Johanna Anderson, a program administrator at the Housing Initiative Partnership. "People in trouble need to think of credit card companies as the little yapping dogs. They'll be calling all the time and sending letters constantly, but their bite is not that bad."
Still, Jon Maddux, chief executive of YouWalkAway.com, said that not paying the mortgage often frees up cash for families to pay off other creditors. The company has counseled about 6,000 people on how to default on their home loans, many of whom have cleaned out savings and retirement plans to make their monthly mortgage payments.
The trend is particularly pronounced among subprime consumers, many of whom were saddled with home loans they could not afford.
An analysis by TransUnion found that 30.4 percent of subprime households were behind on their mortgage payments but current on their credit card payments at the end of last year.
Meanwhile, only 12.3 percent were late on their cards but up to date on their home loans.