It is, for many, a last resort, the decision that comes when the accounts are depleted, the bills long overdue, the choice unavoidable. Foreclosure.
But with 20 percent of U.S. homeowners owing more than their house is worth, according to new data this month, more are being tempted to walk away before they have to.
Some in the mortgage industry call it "jingle mail" - keys in an envelope from a homeowner who's had enough. No statistics are available on how many foreclosures come from people who beat their lenders to the decision - or don't see their homes regaining value. But more financial and real estate experts are saying it's not a bad idea.
It's better to go into bankruptcy while you still have assets to save, the argument goes. Don't tap retirement accounts to pay minimum balances on bills that eventually will smother you anyway.
Walking away from your home, however, comes with a stigma - as it should, says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Cunningham, who has been working in the credit industry for more than 20 years, says willingly walking away from an obligation violates the culture of responsibility critical to the country right now.
"You signed on the dotted line, and a contract is a contract," Cunningham says. "It needs to be treated as such."
Abandoning that contract comes with a penalty, of course: foreclosures ravage your credit rating for years. Cunningham's recommendations: Call your lender to see if anything can be worked out. Research stimulus and housing programs to see if you can qualify for assistance. Certified credit counselors also can help you find your best options, she says.
Sometimes the best option is foreclosure. "There are people who are in such a bad situation that we tell them a home is not going to work out for them," Cunningham says. "They are in such a bad situation."
Is it smart to walk away before you get there? Tell us what you think.
If you're facing that decision, tell me about it.
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