Strategic default isn't a decision to be taken lightly, of course. If everyone did it, the housing market — and the banks — would be in much worse shape than they already are.
If you are considering walking away from your home and mortgage, the following are some of the issues to keep in mind:
1. Look to it as a last resort, not a first option. Your financial troubles could be alleviated with a simple refinancing, especially since 30-year mortgage rates are near record lows of below 4 percent. If the banks are hesitant to rework your loan, look into the number of government programs designed to keep you in your home, which can be researched at MakingHomeAffordable.gov.
2. Location, location, location. Each state has its own rules and regulations regarding foreclosures, which affect both the length of the process and what you could be liable for in the end. In so-called 'non-recourse' states like Arizona, California and Texas, a lender cannot come after you for any deficiency (for instance, if your mortgage was $300,000 and they're only able to sell the property for $200,000). In other states they can pursue the difference, in theory - which is why some homeowners opt to file for bankruptcy, to free themselves from those potential obligations as well.
3. Use the interim to save like a demon. If you're in a state like New York or Florida, which require a judicial review of every foreclosure, it might be a couple of years before you actually have to pack up. In the meantime, be extremely disciplined about stockpiling cash. That will help you with a down payment for a rental, to pay for a car in cash if you need to, or to clear up other debts you might have. "Save money as if you were still paying the mortgage," says Archer. "If you don't, then you'll run out of both time and money, and then you'll be in a real tough spot."
4. Know the tax implications. Historically, if you have a debt that's forgiven, the canceled amount is considered taxable by the IRS. In the wake of the housing bust, though, the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act was drafted to spare you those taxes. That legislation expires at the end of 2012, though - so if it's not extended, you could potentially face a tax bill for the difference.
5. Talk to a professional. A bankruptcy or real-estate attorney can help you through a very tricky process. The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, for instance, has a searchable database of lawyers at www.nacba.org.
"Strategic default is not an easy decision, and there's a cost either way," said Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. "Would you rather be $200,000 underwater, or would you rather have seven years of damage to your credit report? It depends whether you're finally at the point where enough is enough."
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