The Morality of Walking Away

There appears to be a misunderstanding:

Now, with the property worth roughly $60,000 less than the balance of their mortgage, Martin, 68, has been giving serious thought to just walking away, a process lenders call “strategic default.”

Guilt and morality are one side, and objective financial analysis are on the other side,” Martin said. “They’re coming to two opposite conclusions. I wonder how many other people are struggling with the same question.” [Emphasis added.]

Actually, there is nothing at all immoral about walking away from an underwater mortgage. Yes, people (particularly Christians) are generally morally bound to pay their debts. But here’s the thing: If you default, your debts will be paid.

In a general mortgage agreement, the borrower agrees to borrow a certain amount of money at a specified price (called interest) from a lender. Since houses tend to be expensive, lenders don’t generally give out unsecured loans; in fact, lenders generally demand some type of security—also known as collateral—to secure the loan. In general, a mortgage is secured by the property being purchased with the mortgage.

This means that if a borrower misses a specified number of payments (known as default), the lender has the right to confiscate the property pledged as security as compensation for the loan. Stated another way, if you default on your loan, your lender will confiscate your pledged property. In essence, by confiscating your property, your debt is considered paid in full by the lender. You therefore owe the lender nothing, for the lender has stated, per the terms of the contract, that ownership of property offered as security will suffice as repayment in lieu of currency.

That the lender may take a loss on the loan is the concern solely of the lender. The lender has a moral responsibility to do due diligence on each loan, in order to maximize profit. If a lender fails to anticipate a declining housing market, that is his own problem. If a lender fails to anticipate high inflation, that is also his own problem. The borrower is not responsible for ensuring the lender’s profits, the lender is. If the lender is a fool, it is not the borrower’s job to save the lender from his foolishness.

As such, it is not inherently immoral to walk away from an underwater loan. If the lender contractually accepts the property used as security as sufficient for repayment, then there is no problem with using that property to repay the loan. The only question the borrower has to ask himself is which payment method is cheaper—cash or property—and act accordingly.

Note: obviously, this is a general moral guideline, not specific legal advice. Treat it as such. If you are considering a strategic default, consult with an attorney first.

1 comment to The Morality of Walking Away

  • Simon, thank you. I had never considered responding to the moral argument put forth by the banks by stating that, if there was such a moral obligation, then the lenders likewise had a moral obligation to honor the terms of the loan agreement. I appreciate your adding this to my arsenal of reasons why it’s perfectly acceptable to walk away from your home loan (just as it is to terminate your cell phone contract early).

    Robert Nagle

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