Insight From Inside the Mortgage Crisis

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, June 7, 2009

It hadn't even hit the bookstores before this month's Color of Money Book Club selection, "Busted," set off a flurry of Internet conversations.

Sanctimonious critics have slammed this book in the blogosphere, where people can sling anonymous potshots they would never have the guts to say to someone's face.

"Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown" (W.W. Norton, $25.95) by Edmund L. Andrews is the story of how a well-educated, highly paid economics reporter for the New York Times, whose beat includes covering the Federal Reserve, ended up with almost a half-million-dollar mortgage that he and his wife, Patty, couldn't afford.

Unfortunately, a rather regrettable omission mars this intriguing personal account. Andrews failed to mention that his wife had filed for bankruptcy -- twice. She filed once to get out from under debt accumulated because of her failed first marriage and a second time to again shed debt amassed while raising four children as a single mother with little, if any, child support.

"Had I to do it again, I would have included that material," Andrews told me in a telephone interview. "I could have written a whole chapter about Patty's problems with her ex-husband and her problems with getting child support."

Andrews says he was trying to spare his wife further embarrassment. After all, he was already laying out all of their financial foibles for the world to see and to second-guess and criticize.

Based on the comment sections of many blogs, Andrews was right to be concerned about the criticism. The things people have written about him and his wife are just awful.

The book doesn't come off as a woe-is-me tale. Upfront, Andrews says he wasn't duped. He admits to all the unbelievably bad decisions he and his wife made, starting with purchasing a home when she didn't have a job and he was handing over more than half of his monthly paycheck in child support and alimony.

"I am not a victim, because I knew full well I was taking a huge gamble," Andrews writes. "My hunch is that a large share of people who are now in trouble knew in their gut they were taking unreasonable risks too. Adults who buy homes have to take responsibility for their decisions."

They most definitely made some really terrible choices.

Some might want Andrews and his wife to take a cane to their behinds for their behavior. Me, I was satisfied with his mea culpa. Andrews and his wife are suffering. And to date they haven't received a penny of taxpayer money to bail them out, just like many others around the country with burdensome mortgages.

Andrews recounts his saga against the backdrop of the bad practices and predatory lending that helped lead us into a recession.

"My wife Patty and I may or may not hold on to our house," he writes. "We most certainly will have to spend years making up the losses from our adventure. But if there is one conclusion I have reached from our experience, it is that our misjudgments, however egregious they were, pale in comparison with the self-enriching recklessness of those at the top of the financial ladder."

I shook my head many times while reading "Busted," wondering how Andrews could be so financially foolish. But I didn't come away angry with him. I'm angry with the lenders who knew they were pushing bad mortgages. I'm angry that taxpayers are bailing out banks while getting very little in return.

Read "Busted" for the insight. Rather than self-righteously scolding those who were unwise or duped into taking out mortgages they couldn't afford, we need to find solutions to prevent this from happening again. How about some affordable housing and rentals in this country? How about tougher banking regulations? The president and every member of Congress should read this book.

The great mortgage meltdown didn't just happen because borrowers like Andrews were reckless. The housing crisis was a two-person disaster on the dance floor. And leading the dance was an industry willing to lend money to just about anybody who was breathing.

Ignore the vicious comments on the Internet -- they're just a sideshow to what is a well-written case study of how Andrews and millions of others were approved for what we now know were toxic mortgages. Despite its controversial launch, this book is recommended reading. It is worth peering into, as the subtitle says, "Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown."

It is easy to be a member of our book club. We don't meet -- in person, that is. We do come together for a live online discussion. Join me at noon July 2 at http://www.washingtonpost.com. Andrews will be my guest. As a bonus, every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the selected book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Busted," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and address.

-- By mail: Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

-- By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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