As this dog-tired economy continues to drag on, with no relief in sight and no bounce-back in home prices appearing anywhere on the horizon, the single question I am asked most frequently is “Should I walk away from my mortgage, and if I choose to do that, what are my options?”

Usually it comes in the following form.  “We bought our house in 200_, for $_______.   It’s now worth less than what we paid, and less than the outstanding loan amount.  We’re considering our options, but are not sure what to do.”

Sometimes this question comes up because someone has lost a job, or is in the real estate business and hasn’t been able to generate much commission income in the past 2 to 4 years, although sometimes it’s just the economics themselves that trigger the inquiry.

The question about what to do, however, is less a legal decision than it is an economic decision.  Of course, once you decide to walk away, then the follow-through becomes a purely legal act, and should only be undertaken after consulting with legal counsel and obtaining a full understanding of what is likely to happen.

First, should you?  That all depends on where you think housing prices are going to go in the future, how long you’re willing to tough it out and what your other housing options look like.  Obviously, you have to live somewhere, so if you’re not going to own, then you have to have a good understanding of what your rental options are  Example:  A family of four, with two teenagers, living in a 1,500 square foot house in an expensive neighborhood is going to be looking at a very different set of concerns than a childless couple living in a 4,000 SF home in an affordable location.  That seems obvious, but to many folks it apparently isn’t.

So it’s not a straight dollars and cents analysis.  Just because your home is worth 20% less than the balance on your loan, no lawyer can advise you on whether you should keep the house and keep paying, or let it go and brave the consequences.  All a lawyer can do is tell you what is likely to happen under any particular course of action.

Next, if you do decide to walk away, what is going to happen?  Well, we all know that such a decision is going to cause significant credit problems.  It’s inevitable: If you walk away from a home loan, your credit is going to suffer.  But what else?Fortunately, we don’t have debtor’s prison, so despite the loss of the house to foreclosure–another inevitability although the timing may vary depending on circumstances–you may get sued.  Obviously that’s no fun, and is something that you should try to avoid, but whether that is likely to happen or not is a very good question to take up with a lawyer.  We’re lucky in California as there are very powerful anti-deficiency laws, about which I have already blogged rather extensively.  (See California anti-deficiency rules and statutes: When can a mortgage lender in California recover a deficiency after foreclosure?, California Mortgage Deficiencies: What is a Purchase Money Security Interest? and Second Mortgages in California: Deficiencies Not Usually an Issue for full treatment of the subject.)

Last, what about staying and trying to complete a mortgage modification?  I’m sorry to say that I’m a cynic on this subject.  The process seems capricious and arbitrary at best, and since my experience leads me to the unshakable and firm conviction that, as a class of people, consumer bankers are among the dumbest clowns wandering the planet, the percentage likelihood of any one homeowner or family successfully completing a mortgage modification is nearly microscopic.  This is especially true here in Northern California where incomes and home prices are among the highest in the country.  They’re not much interested in modifying mortgages for people with six figure incomes and seven figure home prices.  And of course, whether that is right or not is beside the point, but you need to understand the reality if you’re going to test the water.

The California Homestead exemption (found in CCP §704.730 for those keeping track) was increased as of January 1, 2010.

The Homestead Exemption is the amount of equity in excess of existing liens that the homeowner can protect from levy by creditors.  So if your home has a value of $500,000, your existing mortgage balance is $400,000 and you fall into the $75,000 homestead category, then $75,000 of the $100,000 equity cushion in your home is protected from creditors.  This works in bankruptcy and out.

Here are the new limits:

  • $75,000:  Basic homestead for single person
  • $100,000:  Head of household
  • $175,000:  Over 65 or physically disabled or under 55 with less than $15,000 in annual income ($20,000 if married).

The full text of the statute appears below.

The exact numbers of the California Bankruptcy Exemptions will be released by the Judicial Council on or about April 1, 2010, and published by the Administrative office of the Courts.  The actual published limits are harder than hens’ teeth to find on line, even if you know what you’re looking for.  But here is the current published list of  California “Current Dollar Amounts of Exemptions from the Enforcement of Judgments.”  You can check back here on my site for an update when they release the new numbers on April 1, 2010.

California Code of Civil Procedure ("CCP") §704.730

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about how, when small businesses are forced to file for bankruptcy protection, the inevitable result is that it usually takes the owners down with it. This is extremely common, and far more frequently the rule than the exception.

Why does this happen? Why, if the proprietor has gone through the expense and trouble to create a corporation or a limited liability company (“LLC”) do these things wind up being just so much superfluous window dressing right at the moment when you really need them to step up and do their job?  (Their job being to protect your assets when things go sour.)  Because the corporation or limited liability company formed for the needs of the of the small business owner usually doesn’t have adequate assets or resources to give any comfort to creditors–bank lenders most commonly–and so the lender wants as much security for the loans as possible. Enter the concept of the personal guaranty.

If ABC Corp. wants to borrow $1 million for an operating loan but only has assets of $50k of office furniture, computers, fixtures, etc., the bank is going to want some other security. And if ABC Corp’s sole shareholder has a few hundred thousand dollars in equity in his home, then the bank is going to want a security interest in that. Plus whatever else the owner may own. So the bank demands a personal guaranty from owner, which are usually so broad in what they cover that they renders the entire concept of the LLC or the corporation almost completely useless. And it happens with such efficient thoroughness and with such frequency, that it’s probably safe to say that if a personal guaranty is involved, then don’t even bother with the corporation or LLC. (Except maybe for tax or accounting purposes but we won’t go into that here.)

Another place where this pops up is in the single purpose LLC formed for the purpose of owning real property. I have taken quite a few people through Chapter 7s recently who had a bunch of LLC’s (or the increasingly popular Delaware “Series LLC”) that had been formed to own real estate. The problem is that banks won’t lend money for investment real estate to an LLC on the same terms that then will lend for owner-occupied residential property. They usually want 30% to 40% down depending on the asset. Why? Because the bank wants the owner to have “skin” in the game so that he won’t walk away.

So here’s what happens.  (Or what was happening until things crashed in 2007.)

California resident finds great deal on 3br new construction home in Anytown, Utah (for example only). His real estate broker hooks him up with a loan broker to line up the financing. Owner has nothing to put down, and has read somewhere that investment real estate should be owned by an LLC to “protect his assets.” So Owner goes out and pays some lawyer $1,500 to form a fancy “Delaware Series LLC” for the purpose of owning the investment real estate in Utah. But here’s where the fancy plan derails: Bank won’t lend100% to an LLC, and the loan broker is usually too 1.) greedy 2.) stupid 3.) dishonest 4.) clueless to properly advise Owner. So Owner gets the stack of loan docs, all of which show that it is Owner as an individual, not Owner’s Delaware Series LLC that is the actual borrower on the loan.  Deal closes and Owner gets his house. At this point Owner may transfer title to the LLC in the misguided belief that he is actually using this fancy legal device that he paid the lawyer $1,500 to create for him. After that Owner installs tenant, hires management service, and sits back to starts to collect the rent.

Things go great until 2007 or 2008 when the when the world comes crashing down. The house that Owner bought for $265,000 is now worth about $200,000 or less, the tenants have moved out, and because of the crash in housing prices, Owner can’t rent the property for enough to cash flow the loan, taxes and other expenses. Owner is now officially upside down (or under water) and is having to send checks form California every month just to meet the expenses. So Owner goes to a new lawyer. In many cases, this is me.

Continue reading »