Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

April 3, 2014

Reiss on Paying off Underwater Mortgages

By David Reiss quoted me in What Bills Should You Pay First? It reads in part,

Consumers started prioritizing their mortgage payments ahead of their credit card payments as of September 2013, according to a new TransUnion study.

This reverses a trend that began in September 2008 when the mortgage crisis drove consumers to pay their credit cards bills ahead of mortgages. Consumers have placed an emphasis on paying their auto loans before their mortgages and credit card payments by a wide margin – since at least 2003, TransUnion said. The study obtained anonymous consumer information from December 2002 through December 2012, and each monthly sample included about 2.5 million consumers.

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Many consumers were faced with devaluing home prices and chose to preserve their credit line, said David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

“The underwater mortgage may have seemed like a sinkhole when prices were dropping and putting limited funds into it might have seemed like throwing good money after bad,” he said. “When a household’s income can’t cover all of its expenses, it has to prioritize its payments. If the mortgage is underwater, it may make sense to use those limited funds to protect assets that are integral to daily living and wage earning like an auto or to focus on tools like credit cards that may have some use going forward, if there is still any available credit left.”

Homeowners have reversed that logic with the rebound of housing prices, Reiss said.”If homeowners have equity in their home from those rising prices, prioritizing the mortgage protects that equity and keeps the household in the house to boot,” he said. “Not everyone makes such a calculation, but many do.”

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