No need for tears, but the well-off are losing their master suites and saying goodbye to their wine cellars.
The housing bust that began among the working class in remote subdivisions and quickly progressed to the suburban middle class is striking the upper class in privileged enclaves like this one in Silicon Valley.
Whether it is their residence, a second home or a house bought as an investment, the rich have stopped paying the mortgage at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.
More than one in seven homeowners with loans in excess of a million dollars are seriously delinquent, according to data compiled for The New York Times by the real estate analytics firm CoreLogic.
By contrast, homeowners with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lenders. About one in 12 mortgages below the million-dollar mark is delinquent.
Although it is hard to prove, the CoreLogic data suggest that many of the well-to-do are purposely dumping their financially draining properties, just as they would any sour investment.
“The rich are different: They are more ruthless,” said Sam Khater, CoreLogic's senior economist.
Five properties here in Los Altos were scheduled for foreclosure auctions in a recent issue of The Los Altos Town Crier, the weekly newspaper where local legal notices are posted. Four have unpaid mortgage debt of more than $1 million, with the highest amount $2.8 million.
Not so long ago, said Chris Redden, the paper's advertising services director, “it was a surprise if we had one foreclosure a month.”
The sheriff in Cook County, Illinois, is increasingly in demand to evict foreclosed owners in the upscale suburbs to the north and west of Chicago — like Wilmette, La Grange and Glencoe. The occupants are always gone by the time a deputy gets there, a spokesman said, but just barely.
In Las Vegas, Ken Lowman, a long-time agent for luxury properties, said four of the 11 sales he brokered in June were distressed properties.
“I've never seen the wealthy hit like this before,” said Mr. Lowman. “They made their plans based on the best of all possible scenarios — that their incomes would continue to grow, that real estate would never drop. Not many had a plan B.” The defaulting owners, he said, often remained as long as they could. “They're in denial,” he said.
Here in Los Altos, where the median home price of $1.5 million makes it one of the most exclusive towns in the country, several houses scheduled for auction were still occupied this week. The people who answered the door were reluctant to explain their circumstances in any detail.
At one house, where the lender was owed $1.3 million, there was a couch out front wrapped in plastic. A woman said she and her husband had lost their jobs and were moving in with relatives. At another house, the family described itself as renters. A third family, whose mortgage is $1.6 million, said it would be moving this weekend.
At a vacant house with a pool, where the lender was seeking $1.27 million, a raft and a water gun lay abandoned on the entryway floor.
Lenders are fearful that many of the 11 million or so homeowners who owe more than their houses are worth will walk away from them, especially if the real estate market begins to weaken again. The so-called strategic defaults have become a matter of intense debate in recent months.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two quasi-governmental mortgage finance companies that own most of the mortgages in America with a value of less than $500,000, are alternately pleading with distressed homeowners not to be bad citizens and brandishing a stick at them.
In a recent column on Freddie Mac's website, the company's executive vice-president, Don Bisenius, acknowledged that walking away “might well be a good decision for certain borrowers” but argued that those who did it were trashing their communities.
The CoreLogic data suggest that the rich do not seem to have concerns about the civic good uppermost in mind, especially when it comes to investment and second homes. Nor do they appear to be particularly worried about being sued by their lenders or frozen out of future loans by Fannie Mae, possible consequences of default.
The delinquency rate on investment homes where the original mortgage was more than $1 million is now 23 per cent. For cheaper investment homes, it is about 10 per cent.
With second homes, the delinquency rate for both types of owners was rising in concert until the stock market crashed in September 2008. That sent the percentage of troubled million-dollar loans spiralling up much faster than the smaller loans.
“Those with high net worth have other resources to lean on if they get in trouble,” said Mr. Khater, the analyst. “If they're going delinquent faster than anyone else, that tells me they are doing so willingly.”
Willingly, but not necessarily publicly. The rapper Chamillionaire is a plain-talking exception. He recently walked away from a $2-million house he bought in Houston in 2006.
“I just decided to let it go, give it back to the bank,” he told the celebrity gossip TV show TMZ. “I just didn't feel like it was a good investment.” — New York Times News Service
(Carol Pogash contributed reporting.)