In a 5/6/09 WSJ article, Ruth Simon and James Hagerty report on current housing values after the release of industry results for the first quarter of 2009.

Across the U.S. 19% of mortgage holders are “underwater” or “upside down” – they owe more than their house is worth in today’s market. This is more than a 50% increase in the number of underwater borrowers since the end of 2008. According to one company that tracks this data, “more than one in 10 borrowers … owed 110% or more of their home’s value at the the end of last year.” Las Vegas homeowners have been hit the worst. Zillow.com estimates that over 67% of mortgage holders there are upside down.

Why wouldn’t a bank holding a mortgage agree to write down some of the principal on the mortgage? Let’s say a homeowner with a job is struggling to stay current on a $300K mortage on a house that is now valued at $240K. If the bank forecloses, they will probably sell for closer to $200K and will have expenses for legal fees, maintenance, fix-up and taxes. Wouldn’t it make sense for the bank to at least write down half of the $60K principal difference if that would mean the bank could avoid foreclosure?

The answer is – wait, sit down first. The loss on a foreclosure is a long term loss on the bank’s loan portfolio that can be spread out over several years. A write down in principal on the mortgage is an immediate loss that affects the bank’s bottom line this year. John and Mary Homeowner may have lost their chance to avoid foreclosure because of an accounting rule.

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