In 1981, English punk rock band The Clash wrote "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" about the rocky personal relationships between members of the band when facing the dilemma of sticking together or breaking up. The lyrics could not be more appropriate for homeowners buried in a mountain of negative equity and wondering what to do. After all "if I go there will be trouble and if I stay it would be double.
"The first step in answering this question is to find out if you qualify for a modification or if you can refinance using the HARP program to take advantage of today's low interest rates. The process of getting a modification can be very frustrating. It’s "always tease, tease, tease, you’re happy when I am on my knees." It not only takes a while to get approved, you must keep in mind that the lender does not have a legal obligation to offer or approve a loan modification. It is important to note that they may dual track your file, which means that while they are considering the modification they are moving forward with the foreclosure. Sometimes they "set you free" and foreclose in the middle of your modification application.
Let's say you get a modification. I have a friend who was approved for what at first appeared to me to be an unbelievable loan modification. The modification did not lower the principle but did lower the interest rate to just 2 percent and locked that in for 30 years! This reduced their payment to the same amount that they would pay to rent a similar property. As such, it certainly seemed reasonable to stay – they get to keep their credit intact and remain owners, while paying no more than they would in rent anyway. Plus the payment remains fixed for 30 years, while rents would increase. But that analysis is incomplete. The question that remains is their status when they might want or need to sell, and when do they break even given the substantial negative equity that would remain?
Life events like divorce, death, job loss, job transfer, and others happen. Also sometimes folks just want to relocate. Based on our analysis, and assuming long-term home price appreciation rates, these folks would need to stay until 2026 to simply BREAK EVEN vs. paying rent. Worse, unless they use the rent savings to pay down principal, they'll be stuck upside down in the property, and unable to sell without bank approval of a short sale until 2033. So whether or not it is a good deal for them depends a lot on how long they plan to stay.
For my friends, the best financial decision appears to be to try to short sell their current home, or if necessary let the bank foreclose. If they then rent for 3-5 years they should be able to qualify again to buy. Assuming interest rates don’t skyrocket, or some other major change doesn’t occur, this will save them over $100,000, and give them the flexibility to move if needed without being stuck in their current prison of debt until 2033.
Unfortunately, few homeowners facing this decision have the financial skills to really analyze the various scenarios, and few will consult a qualified accountant or other professional to do it for them.
This analysis is different for every homeowner facing this question. How far under water they are, and the terms of the loan modification are clearly important. It also requires some assumptions about price appreciation, rent inflation, and future interest rates. And importantly, it requires some serious thought as to how long they plan to stay, and perhaps some soul searching on the moral implications of walking away.
Bottom line, this question can be answered only by the homeowner based on their current situation and what is best for them. Would you stay or would you go now?