Friday, April 20, 2007

Underwater homes (not the fun, aquatic kind)

With adjustable-rate mortgages coming home to roost and the subsequent, entirely predictable and long-predicted collapse of the subprime lending market, the dark side of buying real estate is getting a public airing in the press. But there's not just the risk of taking on a mortgage bigger than you can afford -- there's the risk of being really locked in to the house you buy. In a culture that pushes homeownership as an almost essential step in building financial security, it's a risk that's not often highlighted.

The Washington Post has a piece today on "upside-down homes," where sellers end up owing the bank the difference between the mortgage they took on and the lower price they're able to sell for. The idea that housing prices can go down as well as up isn't a novel one, of course, but I admit that the reality of the consequences that can have didn't hit home for me until I read through a few of the article's examples:

Jeffrey Taylor and his wife bought their dream home in Purcellville for $538,000 last August. Now they have to sell it because they are getting divorced and neither one can afford the mortgage alone.

The most they could get for it was $430,000. After paying all the real estate commissions and taxes, they will still owe the bank $118,000.

When David & I (eventually) get serious about buying an apartment, our plan has always been to buy a place we can envision staying in essentially forever. We probably won't be leaving Brooklyn, and neither of us has any interest in getting a "starter apartment" and trying to flip upwards. But the article did prompt me to proceed with caution and be really damn sure we're both committed. The tales of people being forced by circumstances (usually divorce) to have no choice other than selling into a less-frenzied market than the one in which they bought -- and to actually end up owing money to sell a house -- are pretty scary.