A research study using 24 million individual credit files found something surprising - that consumers with higher credit scores are more likely to "walk away" from a mortgage than consumers with lower credit scores. In fact, consumers with higher scores are 50% more likely to strategically default on their mortgage than consumers with lower credit scores.
The research study found some interesting things, such as the following:
1. The number of strategic defaults is far beyond most industry estimates -- 588,000 nationwide during 2008, more than double the total in 2007, representing 18% of all serious delinquencies that extended for more than 60 days in last year's fourth quarter.
2. Strategic defaulters often go straight from perfect payment histories to no mortgage payments at all. This is in stark contrast with most financially distressed borrowers, who try to keep paying on their mortgage even after they've fallen behind on other accounts.
3. Strategic defaults are heavily concentrated in negative-equity markets where home values zoomed during the boom and have cratered since 2006. In California last year, the number of strategic defaults was 68 times higher than it was in 2005. In Florida it was 46 times higher. In most other parts of the country, defaults were about nine times higher in 2008 than in 2005.
4. Two-thirds of strategic defaulters have only one mortgage -- the one they're walking away from on their primary homes. Individuals who have mortgages on multiple houses also have a higher likelihood of strategic default, but researchers believe that many of these walkaways are from investment properties or second homes.
5. Homeowners with large mortgage balances generally are more likely to pull the plug than those with lower balances. Similarly, people with credit ratings in the two highest categories measured by VantageScore -- a joint scoring venture created by Experian and the two other national credit bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion -- are far more likely to default strategically than people in lower score categories.
6. People who default strategically and lose their houses appear to understand the consequences of what they're doing and in fact, strategic defaulters are clearly sophisticated, based on the patterns of selective payments observable in their credit files. For example, they tend not to default on home equity lines of credit until after they bail out on their main mortgages, sometimes to draw down more cash on the equity line.