During the great housing boom, homeowners nationwide borrowed a trillion dollars from banks, using the soaring value of their houses as security. Now the money has been spent and struggling borrowers are unable or unwilling to pay it back.
The delinquency rate on home equity loans is higher than all other types of consumer loans, including auto loans, boat loans, personal loans and even bank cards like Visa and MasterCard, according to the American Bankers Association.
Lenders say they are trying to recover some of that money but their success has been limited, in part because so many borrowers threaten bankruptcy and because the value of the homes, the collateral backing the loans, has often disappeared.
The result is one of the paradoxes of the recession: the more money you borrowed, the less likely you will have to pay up.
“When houses were doubling in value, mom and pop making $80,000 a year were taking out $300,000 home equity loans for new cars and boats,” said Christopher A. Combs, a real estate lawyer here, where the problem is especially pronounced. “Their chances are pretty good of walking away and not having the bank collect.”
Lenders wrote off as uncollectible $11.1 billion in home equity loans and $19.9 billion in home equity lines of credit in 2009, more than they wrote off on primary mortgages, government data shows. So far this year, the trend is the same, with combined write-offs of $7.88 billion in the first quarter.