The Downside of Walking Away from a Mortgage

What to do when you can no longer afford your mortgage.

By + More

Believe it or not, an estimated 11 million people are underwater on their mortgage. That means they owe more to the lender than their home is worth. Because of this, many people are considering a strategic default, or what is known as “walking away from a mortgage.” If you feel this way, you are not alone. As a matter of fact, even the most credit-worthy consumers are considering walking away from their mortgage.

[In Pictures: 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget.]

“Walking away from a mortgage,” or what’s known as a strategic default, usually results in either a short sale or foreclosure and many people in this position are asking one simple question: “What would happen if I walked away?”

Consequences of Walking Away from a Mortgage

Before you walk away, you should know what the major consequences are. They include:

• Impaired credit

• Deficiency risks

• Tax consequences

• Moving costs

• Professional implications

Impaired Credit

This one is easy. Most people know that walking away from a mortgage will mean their credit score will take a hit. What most people may not be aware of is between short selling and foreclosure, there is very little difference in how much your credit score is impacted. The main difference between a short sale and foreclosure is how soon you can qualify to buy a home again after the event, not how many points your credit score went down.

In addition to your credit score sustaining damage points, it is also common for credit card companies to cancel credit cards or lower your credit limit as a result of missing mortgage payments. It is also common that it will become more difficult to obtain financing for larger ticket items such as autos or furniture—or any other type of revolving account after walking away from a mortgage.

Deficiency Risks

Depending on which state you live in, there are varying deficiency risks associated with walking away from your mortgage. Deficiency risks means that your lender may sue you for the difference between what you owe and what your short sale or foreclosure proceeds were. (See anti-deficiency laws by state)

Anti-deficiency protection is limited to a minority of states and for most states in the U.S., there is no protection for homeowners from a lender pursuing the difference between what they owe and what the home sells for in foreclosure.

Further, even if your state has anti-deficiency laws in place, don’t think you are free from deficiency risk. Whether you have deficiency risk or not, depend on factors such as: whether you have a second mortgage; did you refinance and take cash out; is your mortgage the one you got when you originally bought the house, and more.

If you are concerned that you may have deficiency risk, you should speak with a real estate lawyer who can provide legal advice for your particular situation. Only a real estate attorney can accurately provide you the specific advice for your situation. Don’t rely on your neighbor’s advice or a relative who just sold their home via short sale and assures you will be OK just by walking away.

Tax Consequences

If you are considering walking away from a mortgage on your primary residence, there is a chance that you may have some tax liability. If you are considering walking away from a mortgage on a second home or investment property, there can be a significant tax liability and you should consult your tax accountant.

[See the best personal finance stories from around the Web at the U.S. News My Money blog.]

Moving Costs

One of the commonly under-estimated and overlooked consequences of walking away from a mortgage is the expense and process of moving. Some of the common concerns related to moving include:

• Moving into a rental after being a homeowner for decades.

• Explaining to the landlord any credit report concerns as a result of missed mortgage payments.

• Cost of moving expenses. Utilities, deposits, moving trucks and other expenses can add up fast.

• Family members who need to readjust to a new school or community.

Professional Implications

Depending on what you do for a living, you may have professional consequences as a result from walking away from a mortgage. The number of professions where your credit profile matters has grown over the last decade and if you are in a situation where your credit profile matters, you should know what the professional implications are before you walk. After all, you don’t want to lose your house and your job at the same time.

Think Before You Walk

When making the decision to walk away from a mortgage, the consequences are certainly something to consider as part of the decision process. And once you have educated yourself about the consequences and researched all of the possible options, the choice is still yours.

Justin McHood works for Academy Mortgage and is based in Chandler, AZ. He is a contributor to Zillow Blog