The Nation's Housing

Good Credit Scores, Deadbeat Choices

By Kenneth R. Harney
Saturday, September 19, 2009

Who is more likely to walk away from a house and a mortgage -- a person with super-prime credit scores or someone with lower scores?

Hint: It's probably not who you think. New research using a massive sample of 24 million credit files has found that homeowners with high scores when they apply for a loan are 50 percent more likely to "strategically default" -- abruptly and intentionally pull the plug and abandon the mortgage -- than lower-scoring mortgage borrowers.

Experian, one of the three national credit bureaus, teamed with the consulting company Oliver Wyman to identify the characteristics and debt-management behavior of the growing numbers of homeowners who bail out of their mortgages with none of the expected early warning signs, such as nonpayments or late payments on other personal debts.

With foreclosures, delinquencies and loan losses at record levels, strategic defaults and walkaways are among the hottest subjects in residential real estate finance. Unlike in earlier, academic studies, Experian and Wyman had the ability to tap into credit files over extended periods of time to identify patterns associated with strategic defaults.

Among researchers' findings are these eye-openers:

-- The number of strategic defaults is far beyond most industry estimates -- 588,000 nationwide during 2008, more than double the total in 2007. They represented 18 percent of all serious delinquencies that extended for more than 60 days during the fourth quarter of last year.

-- In contrast with most mortgage delinquencies, strategic defaulters often go from perfect payment histories to no mortgage payments at all. They just suddenly stop paying. Most financially distressed borrowers try to keep paying their mortgages even after they've fallen behind on other accounts. They want to save their houses, not dump them.

-- Strategic defaults are heavily concentrated in negative-equity markets, where home values zoomed during the boom and have cratered since 2006. In California last year, the total number of strategic defaults was 68 times as high as it was in 2005. In Florida, it was 46 times as high. In most other parts of the country, defaults were about nine times as high in 2008 than in 2005. Loans originated across the country in the pivotal market-turn year of 2006 have produced seven times as many walkaways as loans originated during 2004, when property values were still rising.

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