A retired couple I know, Brian and Ilsa, own a home in the Southwest. It’s a pretty house, right on the manicured golf course of their gated community (they’re crazy about golf).
The only problem is, they bought the house near the top of the market in 2005, and now find themselves underwater.
They’ve never missed a mortgage payment–Brian and Ilsa are the kind upright, not to say uptight 60-ish white semi-upper-middle-class couple who follow every rule, fill out every form, comply with every norm. In short, they are the backbone of America.
Even after the Global Financial Crisis had seriously hurt their retirement nest egg–and therefore their monthly income–and even fully aware that they would probably not live to see their house regain the value it has lost since they bought it, they kept up the mortgage payments. The idea of them strategically defaulting is as absurd as them sprouting wings.
When HAMP–the Home Affordable Modification Program–was unveiled, they applied, because they qualified: Every single one of the conditions applied to them, so there was no question that they would be approved–at least in theory.
Applying for HAMP was quite a struggle: Go here, go there, talk to this person, that person, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. “It’s like they didn’t want us to qualify,” Ilsa told me, as she recounted their mind-numbing travails.
It was a months-long struggle–but finally, they were approved for HAMP: Their mortgage period was extended, and the interest rate was lowered. Even though their home was still underwater, and even though they still owed the same principal to their bank, Brian and Ilsa were very happy: Their mortgage payments had gone down by 40%. This was equivalent to about 15% of their retirement income. So of course they were happy.
However, three months later, out of the blue, they got a letter from their bank, Wells Fargo: It said that, after further review, Brian and Ilsa had in fact not qualified for HAMP. Therefore, their mortgage would go back to the old rate. Not only that, they now owed the difference for the three months when they had paid the lowered mortgage–and to add insult to injury, they were assessed a “penalty for non-payment”.