Options for Homeowners in Underwater Mortgages: When You Can’t Save Your House

If you are struggling to pay your mortgage due to a job loss or transfer, illness, or change in life circumstances (such as a divorce), you may not be able to save your house. When the housing market was in better shape, people used to be able to easily sell their houses when these situations occurred. Unfortunately, the housing market has changed, making this option unlikely for many people.

Because many homeowners are “underwater” or have negative equity, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. This post is the second of two about homeowners in underwater mortgages. In this post, I will discuss some of the options that are available for homeowners who are not able to save their homes.

Sell your house and bring cash for the difference between the sale price and the mortgage balance to the closing. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic option for many people, especially once you include closing costs and realtor fees. On occasion, sellers in this situation have been able to secure a personal loan for the difference between the sale price and the mortgage balance, but this is quite rare.

Deed in lieu of foreclosure.  Some homeowners are able to negotiate a deed in lieu of foreclosure with their lenders. In this case, the homeowner deeds the house back to the lender, in order to satisfy their mortgage and avoid foreclosure proceedings.

Short sale. If the lender agrees to accept a short sale, a homeowner can sell his house for what it is currently worth, even if that is less than what he owes on his mortgage(s). The lender may not agree to forgive the “deficiency” (the difference between what the house sold for and the amount owed on the mortgage).

Foreclosure. If you are no longer paying your mortgage, the lender will eventually begin the foreclosure process. Foreclosure is a legal process by which a bank, mortgage company, or other creditor takes a homeowner’s property in order to satisfy a debt.

In Minnesota, there are two different methods of foreclosure:

(1) Foreclosure by action. See Minn. Stat. § 581.01 et seq.

(2) Foreclosure by advertisement. See Minn. Stat. § 580.01 et seq.

Deficiency Judgment. Minnesota allows for deficiency judgments by mortgage holders (lenders) in certain cases. See Minn. Stat. § 582.30. A deficiency judgment is a judgment against a debtor (homeowner) whose foreclosure sale did not produce sufficient funds to pay the mortgage in full.

Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act and Debt Cancellation. If you have a successful short sale and your mortgage bank decides to forgive the deficiency, this would normally be a taxable event. This is also true in the case of a foreclosure or a deed in lieu of foreclosure. This is because debt forgiveness or cancelation is considered to be “income” by the IRS. The Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007 provides an exception for “qualified principal resident indebtedness.” According to the IRS website:

The Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007 generally allows taxpayers to exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence. Debt reduced through mortgage restructuring, as well as mortgage debt forgiven in connection with a foreclosure, qualifies for the relief.

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