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Column: These real estate 'victims' don't deserve handouts

There it was again in the headline: President Bush to help "victims" of foreclosure.

Your mind conjures up highwaymen ambushing another honest traveler on the road of life: Stand and deliver, your deed or your life.

Don't get me wrong, the word "victim" applies to some foreclosure cases. Sickness, unemployment, divorce, even an ill-timed job transfer can place house payments out of reach. But those types of foreclosures are always with us, in good times and bad.

The foreclosure wave this time is more complex — and more troubling. A story I wrote on Sunday zeroed in on a foreclosure-plagued Clearwater Realtor with six homes worth $7-million. He's not alone. Real estate professionals account for thousands of stressed properties jamming the market.

If they're all victims, who's preying on them? Even a gambler bled dry in a casino can rail against the owner of the blackjack table. It's not so easy to cast blame when your own acquisitiveness led you astray.

The question of victimhood is critical. It's an election year, and politicians are market-testing new rescue schemes for people in danger of losing their homes. The worst I've heard is a government mandate that lenders freeze mortgage rates for five years, as if private contracts were so much Charmin.

The recent Florida property tax reform created another layer of separate-and-unequal taxation. If you bought after March 1, 2007, you can use tax portability to lower your bill. If you bought before then you're usually stuck with your old, higher tax bill.

Now, well-intentioned but misguided home-salvage proposals threaten to enshrine other inequalities. And many of the bailouts would go to the financially reckless.

A story from my own neighborhood could suffice. Two neighbors live in same-sized, newly built houses. One earns more than the other.

But the higher earner overspent on luxuries and finds himself in financial trouble. He's persuaded the bank to forgive $100,000 in mortgage debt if he finds a buyer for the house. It's called a short sale.

Meanwhile, the other homeowner dutifully makes house payments he struggles to afford. No one's offering a bailout. And the benchmark set by the short sale of his neighbor's house could drop the value of his house by tens of thousands of dollars.

Before we buy the latest salve from BushObamaHill, let's make sure the people who gamed the banking system during the boom aren't the ones gaming the government during the bust.

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com.

Column: These real estate 'victims' don't deserve handouts 04/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 10:28am]
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