Walk Away: Why More People Should Abandon Their Homes

Study finds homeowners fight foreclosure even when it doesn't make sense.

ByABC News
November 18, 2009, 5:53 PM

Nov. 20, 2009 — -- Millions of Americans, whose homes are now worth significantly less than their mortgage, could be making an expensive mistake by continuing to try and pay their loan off when they should, instead, be walking away. In fact, owners are willing to keep piling money into a losing investment simply because they're ashamed to foreclose, according to a controversial new study.

"Homeowners should be walking away in droves. But they aren't," writes Brent White, an associate professor of law at the University of Arizona.

He explains that some owners who bought at the peak of the market now owe more on their mortgage than they can ever recoup in their lifetime. Although it would make financial sense to cut losses and abandon their homes, feelings are getting in the way. "A lot of it has to do with shame, guilt and fear," says White.

Critics say advising someone to walk away from their home is irresponsible.

But White argues that the math is simple.

In his paper he runs through average scenarios in two states and shows how some middle-class homeowners could save more than $300,000 in just ten years by foreclosing, even after factoring in costs.

White made his case in a study entitled "Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis," which was published in the latest issue of Arizona Legal Studies.

In some parts of the country, including Arizona, California and Florida, home prices have fallen by more than half, while rents have also dropped, White says. As a result, if you bought an average-priced home in 2006, it's likely that your mortgage payment is significantly more -- by up to three times more -- than the cost of just renting a similar home in your area.

But Americans don't care about the math.

"Going through foreclosure is an admission of failure," says Jeremy Tobacman, an assistant professor of business at The Wharton School in Pennsylvania. "People like to fulfill their obligations.