May 20, 2022

Borrowers Chose Strategic Default On Reverse Mortgages

When reverse mortgages were last reviewed, it was predicted that many unqualified borrowers would wind up defaulting, despite the fact that a reverse mortgage has no payment due. 

As originally conceived, reverse mortgages were designed to fulfill a legitimate borrowing need.  Reverse mortgages were developed for elderly Americans who had a mortgage free home with substantial equity and wanted to cash out their home equity to supplement their retirement income without having to sell the house or face large mortgage payments.

In theory, the HECM made sense by allowing homeowners to remain in their homes and monetize their equity.  The lifetime HECM payment, along with other retirement income and savings would allow for a more comfortable lifestyle.  The only theoretical loser on the HECM program would be the FHA if property values dropped.

The HECM is available to all those 62 or older who have sufficient equity in their homes.  HECM program lends without regard to credit or income and is strictly  asset based lending.  Do these lending criteria remind anyone of  past  disastrous mortgage programs, such as  sub prime, ALT A or Pay Option ARMs??

A HECM does not require that the homeowner escrow for taxes  or homeowners insurance.  A known risk factor for default is a non escrowed loan.  The homeowner can face foreclosure  for not properly maintaining the property or for non payment of taxes or insurance.

Many homeowners taking out reverse mortgages were taking the maximum loan allowed upfront (instead of taking a monthly draw) and using the proceeds to payoff existing debt.  This choice left the elderly homeowner with little equity and no monthly cash payment to supplement retirement, a recipe for financial disaster.

The reason why borrowers are taking most of their available cash out upfront is because they are using the proceeds to pay off mortgages, consumer debt, medical bills, credit cards, etc.   Borrowers run up large amounts of debt when spending exceeds income, a situation likely to continue  after the borrower taps the last dime of equity from his home.  Since the HECM was the last option available, what happens in a couple of years when the borrower is again overwhelmed by debt?

Based on the credit profile and debt levels incurred prior to his approval of a HECM, what are the odds that the borrower’s finances turn around after his refinance?  My guess is that within a few short years, the borrower is in heavy debt again, unable to pay the property taxes or maintenance on the property and thus facing a potential foreclosure.  Since HUD will not be throwing senior citizens out of their homes, expect a mortgage modification program for reverse mortgages and further losses to the taxpayer on another mortgage program gone bad.

It now appears that, as predicted, many elderly reverse mortgage borrowers cannot afford to pay the property taxes due on their homes or are strategically chosing default since the decline in property values wiped out whatever equity they had left.  The end result is the predicted and ridiculous situation of borrowers defaulting on mortgages that do not have payments. 

This situation was confirmed in an audit report by the Office of the Inspector General.

HUD Was Not Tracking Almost 13,000 Defaulted HECM Loans With Maximum Claim Amounts of Potentially More Than $2.5 Billion

We performed an internal audit of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) program because we found that an increasing number of borrowers had not paid taxes or homeowners insurance premiums as required, thus placing the loan in default. Also, we noted that HUD had granted foreclosure deferrals routinely on defaulted loans, but it had no formal procedures.

We found that HUD’s informal foreclosure deferral policy and its reversal had a negative effect on the universe of HECM loans and loan servicers (servicers).  As a result, four servicers contacted were holding almost 13,000 defaulted loans with a maximum claim amount of more than $2.5 billion, and two of the four servicers said they were awaiting HUD guidance on how to handle them. Further, the servicers had paid taxes and insurance premiums totaling more than $35 million for these 12,958 borrowers…

Since unreported defaulted loans were only obtained from 4 of a total of 16 HECM servicers nationwide, more defaulted loans may exist. Further, as HUD could not track these loans, it did not know the potential claim amount. In the event of foreclosure of the 7,673 loans for which HUD was aware and 12,958 loans of which it was not aware, HUD could lose an estimated $1.4 billion upon sale of the properties.

Local Governments Join The Strategic Default Movement

As if creditors didn’t have enough worries with nonperforming consumer debt and defaulting  real estate mortgages, it now appears that another wave of debt defaults has started – this time by municipal borrowers.

Consider the City of Buena Vista, Virginia, that recently defaulted on a bond payment due July 15th:

WSJ– Buena Vista, Va., borrowed $9.2 million through a bond offering in 2005 to refinance a municipal golf course. It pledged as collateral, of all things, its City Hall and police station.

Now, amid financial difficulties, the city says it can’t pay its debt, triggering a showdown over these public buildings.

On the other side of the battle is a big New York insurance company, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which is obligated to pay bondholders if the city defaults.

Municipalities across the U.S. are struggling with huge debts and shrinking revenue, making them vulnerable to similar situations. Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, is publicly flirting with bankruptcy. And when Central Falls, R.I., couldn’t pay its debt recently, it handed its finances to a receiver.

ACA Financial  insured the $9.2 million “moral obligation” bond offering, under which Buena Vista promised to pay the debt if revenues from the golf course were inadequate.  The golf course turned out to be a bust, and the City has been losing money every year just to keep it open. 

In 2005, at the peak of the lending/real estate bubble, ACA Financial did not foresee a problem with insuring a loan not backed by the full faith and credit of the issuing municipality.  This overly optimistic underwriting decision is likely to result in a 90% loss for ACA since the collateral backing the $9.2 million loan is only worth about $1.1 million and the borrower is under no legal obligation to pay (only a “moral obligation”).

The insurer has much to lose. The collateral is worth just a fraction of the debt. The bonds are secured by the golf course itself, but it is valued at just about $950,000, Mr. Kearney says.

The City Hall, part of the collateral, is a small two-story building constructed in the 1960s. Like the newer police station, it is worth just a few hundred thousand dollars, Mr. Kearney guesses, though nobody has bothered to appraise it.

Defaulting on debt has become a rational choice for many debtors.  Many defaults are forced due to unemployment, income loss or depleted savings.  More challenging for lenders are “strategic defaults” by borrowers who have ability to pay but chose not to, due to loss of collateral value backing the loan. 

In the case of Buena Vista, the mayor stated that “No one has been able to give us any solution short of a dramatic tax increase”.  Exactly how “dramatic” a tax increase would be required was unmentioned but here are some numbers to consider:

-Under the circumstances, Buena Vista could probably negotiate a reduction in the interest rate to 3% from the current 7.2% and extend the term to 25 years

-Buena Vista has approximately 2,300 families (total population 6,222) and the median household income is $41,900

-The monthly payment on a $9.2 million loan over 25 years at 3% is $43,627

-The payment due from each household to pay off the bond issue would be $18.96 per month, equivalent to foregoing around 3 cups of coffee per month at Starbucks

Is default Buena Vista’s only viable option or have they joined the Strategic Default Club?

Strategic Defaults – The Difference Between The Rich And “Other People”

Million Dollar Home Owners Falling Off The Cliff

“I think you’ll find the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money” – Mary Colum

If the difference between the rich and “other people” is money, why are the rich walking away from their mortgages just as fast as anyone else?   This question is examined in a recent New York Times article which cites a serious delinquency rate of 1 in 7 for homeowners with a mortgage over $1 million compared to a delinquency rate of 1 in 12 for smaller mortgages.  The Times’ conclusion is that the biggest defaulters on mortgages are ruthless rich folks with no scruples.

Without citing specific statistical analysis, the Times article seems to draw the conclusion that anyone with a million dollar mortgage would have substantial financial resources that could be tapped to keep the mortgage current.   This may well be the case for some, but drawing from my own experience in the mortgage industry, many homeowners with the million dollar mortgages are financially thin and over leveraged.   For a variety of reasons ranging from ego, poor financial planing or irrational exuberance, many purchasers walk into million dollar homes with empty pockets.

Many of the million dollar homes now in default were purchased when eager buyers believed that home values could only go up and that buying as much home as possible simply meant larger profits down the road.  A ten percent gain on a million dollar home results in a handsome $100,000 gain – ten times the profit from purchasing a $100,000 home.

A few short years ago, at the height of the housing bubble, income was deemed irrelevant when banks granted mortgage approvals.   The proverbial strawberry picker or fast food cashier with average credit could use exotic mortgage programs to buy at any price level chosen, without the bother of a down payment or income verification.    Ever increasing home values then allowed cash extraction from a refinance or second mortgage, once again without the hassles of verifying income.  It should come as no surprise that wannabe millionaires taking the biggest risks now have the highest default rates.

According to the Federal Reserve, “half of the defaults are driven purely by negative equity” when the mortgage debt exceeds 150% of a property’s value.  Since high priced homes have seen large declines in value, it should come as no surprise that many strategic defaults will occur at the high end of the market by homeowners with million dollar mortgages.  The open question is – does having a million dollar mortgage imply a wealthy homeowner?

If a statistical study was done on the net worth of defaulting homeowners who have million dollar mortgages, it would probably reveal that many of these alleged “rich” homeowners have an embarrassingly low or negative net worth.  Consider the findings from one of the most influential studies on the mind set and lifestyles of the wealthy from The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko.

Characteristics of the millionaire next door:

  • Avoids buying status objects or leading a status lifestyle
  • 97% are homeowners with an average home value of $320,000, occupying the same home for over 20 years
  • The average millionaire lives well below his means and spends below his income level

The rich did not get rich by being poor stewards of capital or chasing housing bubbles.  The bulk of those defaulting on million dollar mortgages (strategically or otherwise) are simply poor people, living in big houses they could never afford in the first place.

Living Large

Living Large