By Brent T. White

An increasingly influential view is that strategic defaulters make a rational choice to default because they have substantial negative equity. This article, which is based upon the personal accounts of over 350 individuals, argues that this depiction of strategic defaulters as rational actors is woefully incomplete. Negative equity alone does not drive many strategic defaulters’ decisions to intentionally stop paying their mortgages. Rather, their decisions to default are driven primarily by emotion-typically anxiety and hopelessness about their financial futures and anger at their lenders’ and the government’s unwillingness to help. If the government and the mortgage industry wish to stem the tide of strategic default, they must address these emotions.

Because emotions are primary, however, principal reductions may not be necessary. Rather, many underwater homeowners simply need some reason to feel less apprehensive about the financial consequences of continuing to pay their underwater mortgages. One possible way to provide this comfort would be a “rent-based loan program,” allowing underwater homeowners to refinance their entire balances to interest rates that would bring their mortgage payments in line with the rental costs of comparable homes. A rent-based approach would relieve many underwater homeowners’ financial anxieties and would likely be enough alone to stem the tide of strategic default.

Download the full article (PDF) here.

Recommended Citation
Brent T. White, Take This House and Shove It: The Emotional Drivers of Strategic Default, 63 SMU L. Rev. 1279 (2010)