The New Normal: Mortgage Meltdown

PHOTO: Ed Andrews/ABC News
After taking out a $500,000 mortgage, New York Times economics reporter Ed Andrews found himself in just the kind of debt trap he had warned others about.

A few years ago getting a mortgage on a dream home suddenly became a reality for a growing number of people. Television commercials boasted that if you had "less than perfect credit," a bankruptcy or even a previous foreclosure, you could still qualify for a mortgage.

One of the skeptics was New York Times economics reporter Ed Andrews. Andrews wrote a piece in 2004 warning about dangerous home mortgages, calling them "the ever more graspable and risky American dream."

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Then, Andrews promptly did the increasingly common thing at the time. He wrote his name on a half-million-dollar mortgage for a Silver Spring, Md., home he couldn't afford.

Watch the full story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET.

Andrews now says that he, of all people, should have known better.

"I really did know a lot more than ... most people about, specifically, these kinds of mortgages," he told "20/20" in a recent interview. "I thought about it ... and yet ... I plunged ahead."

Andrews reveals all the gory details in his new book, "Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown." He said that he and his wife, Patricia Barreiro, took the plunge because they were blinded by their desire to start a new life together after going through difficult divorces. They hoped to provide some stability and a new home for their children from their prior marriages.

"I think that, like Ed, I was a little delusional and I think we weren't thinking very clearly," Barreiro said.

And why should they? Especially since banks had stopped asking borrowers what was once the most important question: Can you afford to pay us back?

"They actually didn't care one way or the other," Andrews said, detailing the math behind how unrealistic it was for the bank to lend them $500,000.

"We were going into this with me paying all of my take-home pay to the mortgage ... and the gamble was, basically, that Patty was going to be able to cover our living expenses with the money that she earned," he said.

It was "magical thinking," he said, especially because Barreiro was not even working when they bought the house and then struggled to find a good-paying job. She eventually found a job but then lost it.

Andrews soon learned that the couple's finances had stretched to the breaking point. He recalled the day when, a few months after buying his home, he went to the ATM to find he only had $196 in the bank.

"Suddenly, here we were, just a couple months later, and boom, I'm down to nothing in that bank account," he said.

New Normal: Andrews and Barreiro Hit Bottom

With nothing in the bank, Andrews turned to his credit cards to keep the family afloat. The couple quickly ran up their credit card debt. As the balances skyrocketed, so did the interest rates.

Ultimately, their debt ballooned to more than $50,000, with interest rates of more than 20 percent. With the stress mounting, their marriage began to suffer. Like many couples, they say they argued over money and, even now, are still struggling.

The couple are now eight months behind on their mortgage and facing foreclosure. Their days of "magical thinking" are over.

Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren is hoping all Americans abandon such a way of thinking. The outspoken critic of consumer lenders says they need to be more strongly regulated. But she also believes people must change the way they use consumer debt.

"The idea that you only buy what you can pay for, and then you don't have to ... worry about it anymore," Warren said of the goal. "I think that's becoming a lot more attractive for American families. I'm hopeful that'll be the new normal."

Andrews takes full responsibility for his situation, but he does think people should think twice before raining down judgment. "I'm not a victim ... [but] I really do think that many people were steered and duped into things that shouldn't have been," he said.

Today, they are living their new normal. They no longer use credit cards. They drive a 10-year-old Toyota in need of repair, hoping to make the car last a bit longer. Barreiro's young daughter has had to give up her ballet lessons. And her husband has had to have some hard conversations with his college-aged son.

"He is now preparing to borrow $5,000 a year to cover his costs," Ed Andrews said of his son.

Perhaps the biggest change is the realization that they will lose their dream home. Barreiro has begun to look at rentals in the neighborhood in preparation for that day.

She said she is actually looking forward to the future and what it has in store for her family.

"We don't want to take a gamble on our marriage anymore. ... We want to live a real life ... an authentic life without any fantasy in it," she said. "That would be good enough for me."