Realtor.com quoted me in Why Doctors Buy Bigger Homes Than Lawyers (and What It Means to You). It reads, in part,
Take that, Alan Dershowitz: Although both doctors and lawyers can typically afford better-than-decent-sized homes, a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in states with a certain legal provision, physicians’ houses are bigger. Often much bigger.
So what’s the deal? It seems to come down to two factors: First, the skyrocketing costs of financially devastating medical malpractice suits; second, a once-obscure provision called “homestead exception” which can protect the assets of doctors in some states from being wiped out by those suits when they invest their cash in their homes.
“We have been interested in understanding how does that pervasive aspect of a physician’s career influence the decisions they make … whether it means they invest more in houses to protect themselves against liability,” Anupam Jena, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the paper, tells the Washington Post.
Here’s how homestead exception works: If creditors are hounding you for unsecured debts—as opposed to secure ones, like your mortgage—they can’t take your home as collateral, as long as you declare bankruptcy. In fact, they can’t even place a lien on the property to collect when you sell. These exemptions vary by state: Some, such as New Jersey, have no such safeguard; in California, individuals’ homes are protected up to $75,000 (which generally won’t get you past the front porch).
Yet a handful of states—Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, as well as the District of Columbia—have unlimited homestead exemption. Doctors in those states bought homes that were 13% more expensive than the homes of doctors elsewhere. The homes of medical doctors (and dentists, who are essentially in the same medical malpractice boat) were markedly more expensive than the homes of professionals making similar salaries—even lawyers, who know a thing or two about malpractice suits. The authors drew from U.S. Census Bureau data on 3 million households about profession, household income, and home value.
So why should you care? Because homestead exemptions apply to you, too—even if the closest you come to the medical profession is annual checkups and late night reruns of “ER.”
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But don’t get the wrong idea: The homestead exemption isn’t a bulletproof way to ward off foreclosure. Remember, it applies only to unsecured debt such as credit cards—not secured debt like your mortgage.
“If you borrow money for a home, the homestead exemption typically does not apply,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. In other words, if you don’t pay your mortgage and default on your loan, your lender can foreclose and seize your home.
And we’re not saying you should run from your creditors, because eventually they’ll catch up to you. But if you are in financial straits and scared sick of losing your house, check your local homestead exemption laws first—you might be safer than you think.