Jingle mail and the mortgage crisis

By Felix Salmon
June 1, 2010
David Streitfeld has a great NYT piece on the way in which jingle mail, or strategic default, seems to be reaching its logical conclusion. Right now, about 24% of all mortgaged properties are underwater. And if you're being foreclosed upon now, you probably defaulted 438 days ago. In New York, that figure is 561 days.

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David Streitfeld has a great NYT piece on the way in which jingle mail, or strategic default, seems to be reaching its logical conclusion. Right now, about 24% of all mortgaged properties are underwater. And if you’re being foreclosed upon now, you probably defaulted 438 days ago. In New York, that figure is 561 days.

What’s more, the “limbo” period between default and foreclosure is growing fast: it has risen from 251 days in January 2008. Doing the math, that means that the average amount of time in limbo is growing by 1 days roughly every 4.4 days. Which means that if you default today, then you probably won’t get foreclosed upon until about 567 days from now — or roughly Christmas 2011. That’s 19 months, give or take, without having to make any mortgage payments at all. And if it turns out that your mortgage is one of the millions whose documentation is so screwed up that the loan servicer can’t prove you actually owe them any money at all, then there’s really no end to the amount of time you can sit in your house rent- and mortgage-free.

This turns out to be a great business for opportunistic lawyers, who can gross over half a million dollars a year just by spending a few hours per client stringing the mortgage companies along:

About 10 new clients a week sign up, according to Mr. Stopa, who says he now has 350 clients in foreclosure, each of whom pays $1,500 a year for a maximum of six hours of attorney time. “I just do as much as needs to be done to force the bank to prove its case,” Mr. Stopa said.

Many mortgages were sold by the original lender, a circumstance that homeowners’ lawyers try to exploit by asking them to prove they own the loan. In Mrs. Pemberton’s case, Mr. Stopa filed a motion to dismiss on March 17, 2009, and the case has not moved since then.

In the vast majority of these cases, we’re not talking about borrowers with loads of money who are trying to take advantage of the non-recourse nature of their loans. We’re talking, instead, about people who overstretched on their house, who borrowed much more money than they could realistically pay back, and who now realize that they’re actually in a pretty strong negotiating position with respect to their lender.

Needless to say, the more people who jump onto this bandwagon, the worse the effects for the solvency of America’s banks. Right now, the banks are still marking at par any performing mortgage, even if the principal amount is much greater than the value of the home. But if those borrowers stopped paying tomorrow, the value of the mortgage would have to be marked down to much less than the value of the home, since foreclosing and selling the house is likely to prove extremely difficult.

Clearly, the banks’ plan A — laying the world’s largest guilt trip on their borrowers — is falling apart, even as Plan B is conspicuous by its absence. House prices in the US aren’t plunging vertiginously any more. But that doesn’t mean the mortgage crisis is over. In fact, the worst might be yet to come.

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