A Guide to Navigating Underwater Mortgages

ByNathan Paulus
Edited byRae Osborn

Updated: October 31, 2023

ByNathan Paulus
Edited byRae Osborn

Updated: October 31, 2023

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An "underwater" or "upside-down" mortgage arises when a homeowner owes more on their property than its current market value. This situation typically happens when housing prices fall, or the home has little equity. While being underwater can complicate refinancing or selling the home, it's not a dead-end. Numerous strategies can help you navigate these financial waters.

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What Is an Underwater Mortgage?

An underwater mortgage means the outstanding loan exceeds the home's current value. In simpler terms, you owe more than what your house is worth. Depending on the extent of this decrease, this can result in no home equity or even negative equity. To illustrate, if you bought a house three years ago with a $400,000 mortgage and its current market value is $370,000, you're $30,000 underwater.

These situations became prominent during the 2008 financial crisis, marked by a housing market crash and a spike in foreclosures. Underwater mortgages aren't limited to houses. They can also apply to assets like cars or boats. While they've become less common due to stabilized housing prices recently, always be aware of this risk when considering real estate investments.

Underwater Mortgage Causes

Underwater mortgages primarily result from housing market fluctuations and missed mortgage payments. New homeowners are particularly susceptible, especially those who've made small down payments or still need to build substantial equity. For instance, a 3% down payment on a $400,000 house leads to $12,000 initial equity. A slight dip in property value can easily place you in an underwater position.

Housing Market Fluctuations

Real estate prices fluctuate based on various economic conditions. While properties tend to appreciate over time, their values might decline due to a surplus of available homes without sufficient demand. Other influencers include rising interest rates, which can make loans more costly, and broader economic downturns that affect consumer spending and property demand.

EXAMPLE

Imagine purchasing a home for $200,000 with a $40,000 down payment. If property values in your area drop due to decreased demand, your home's value could fall from $200,000 to $120,000. Selling it at this price with a current mortgage balance of $150,000 would leave you underwater by $30,000.

Missed Mortgage Payments

Mortgages are structured so that homeowners gradually pay down the loan's principal amount. However, missing payments can disrupt this process. This means you won't build equity, and the unpaid interest can compound, raising your total debt.

EXAMPLE

You took out a $350,000 loan for a $300,000 home with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 3.75%. Your first payment would be $1,389.35, with $937.50 being interest. If you miss this payment, the unpaid interest grows at 3.75%. Consistently missed payments could put you underwater on your mortgage.

How to Identify an Underwater Mortgage

You need to know your home's value to determine if your mortgage is underwater. While a home assessment can provide an accurate estimate, it may not be worth the cost if you don't plan to sell your house soon. Here are some steps to help you determine if you're underwater on your mortgage.

1
Assess Your Remaining Mortgage Amount

Check your mortgage statement for the "principal balance" or "outstanding principal." If you need an exact figure, contact your loan servicer. They can provide a detailed payoff statement, which includes any accrued interest and fees. If you've taken multiple mortgages, ensure you account for them.

2
Estimate Your Home's Current Market Value

Consider hiring an appraiser or consulting with local real estate agents to estimate your home's current market value accurately. Online platforms like Zillow or Redfin can provide ballpark figures, but remember, these are just estimates and might not capture specific details of your property.

3
Calculate the Equity Difference

Subtract your home's estimated value from your total mortgage debt to determine if you're underwater. For example, if your total mortgage is $400,000 and your research suggests your home's value is $375,000, you would subtract the home value from the mortgage amount. So, $375,000 minus $400,000 results in a negative equity of $25,000. This means you're underwater by $25,000.

Potential Risks of an Underwater Mortgage

An underwater mortgage isn't just a paper loss; it can have tangible financial consequences, especially if you want to sell your home. If you can't keep up with the payments, there's also a risk of foreclosure.

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Options for Homeowners With Underwater Mortgages

Immediate action may not be necessary if you can comfortably afford your mortgage payments and plan to remain in your home. If financial strains are surfacing, strategies are available to prevent foreclosure and mitigate significant financial repercussions while waiting for your home value to increase again.

Stay and Build Equity Over Time

If you can manage the payments and aren't planning to move soon, the most straightforward approach is to stay put. Over time, as you continue paying off your mortgage and property values potentially rise, your equity will increase. Make extra principal payments to reduce your loan balance faster if possible. Also, consider enhancing your home's value through remodeling or home improvements.

Refinance the Mortgage

Refinancing an underwater mortgage can be a solution. Those with government-backed loans such as FHA, USDA, or VA may have options. If you have a FHA loan, you may qualify for an FHA Streamline refinance, which doesn't require a home appraisal. This could allow for a new loan even when underwater. The USDA also offers a Streamline Assist Refinance for current USDA direct or guaranteed home loan borrowers. It's important to note that not all mortgage lenders offer USDA loans.

Seek Loan Modification Opportunities

Loan modification involves your lender agreeing to alter specific mortgage terms, such as extending the repayment period, reducing the interest rate, or decreasing the principal balance. Loan modification can result in a more manageable monthly payment. If your lender forgives any part of the negative equity, it might be considered taxable income.

Pursue a Short Sale

A short sale involves selling your home for less than the outstanding mortgage. This means the lender agrees to a sale price less than the mortgage balance, resulting in a loss. Lenders typically require proof of financial hardships, such as job loss or disability, before considering a short sale. If the lender consents to the short sale, you might pay tax on the forgiven loan amount.

Opt for a Deed In Lieu of Foreclosure

A deed in lieu of foreclosure offers homeowners a way to sidestep the foreclosure process by voluntarily transferring their property's deed to the lender. In exchange, the lender agrees not to proceed with foreclosure. This route lets homeowners choose their departure timeline, avoiding abrupt eviction from a foreclosure sale. Secure all agreement details in writing to prevent future liabilities. This method alleviates mortgage obligations and benefits lenders by eliminating the foreclosure hassle. If all else fails, foreclosure becomes the inevitable last step.

Declare Bankruptcy as a Last Resort

Declaring bankruptcy as debt relief can be an option to help you get out of an underwater mortgage. There are two types of bankruptcy, and both have significant impacts on your credit and should be approached with caution.

  • Chapter 13: This form allows you to retain your home while devising a court-supervised repayment plan. The court supervises this plan for three to five years, ensuring you gradually get back on track with your mortgage.
  • Chapter 7: This form involves the court liquidating most of your assets to repay your debts. Consequently, you risk losing significant assets like your home or car, though any remaining debt is absolved.

Additional Resources

We’ve compiled a curated list of government agencies and their respective roles in offering mortgage assistance and resources for homeowners and mortgages:

  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) - Get Homeowner Assistance Funds: The CFPB offers detailed information on the Homeowner Assistance Funds (HAF) and how to use them. It provides insights into the application process, eligibility criteria and how to avoid potential scams related to mortgage assistance.
  • Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA): The FHFA oversees the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), and the Federal Home Loan Bank System. This includes 11 Federal Home Loan Banks and the Office of Finance. The agency ensures these entities operate safely and soundly, providing reliable liquidity and funding for housing finance and community investment.
  • United States Department of the Treasury - Homeowner Assistance Fund: The Department highlights the Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF) programs that have assisted homeowners in preventing mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures and other related challenges.
  • United States Department of Housing and Urban Development: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supports communities by providing housing assistance. They offer resources for finding shelter, local public housing and tools to report housing discrimination.
  • USAGov - Home Buying Assistance: This official government site provides a comprehensive guide on home loans, mortgage assistance, homeownership vouchers and details on real estate and federal lands available for sale by the government.

About Nathan Paulus


Nathan Paulus headshot

Nathan Paulus is the Head of Content Marketing at MoneyGeek, with nearly 10 years of experience researching and creating content related to personal finance and financial literacy.

Paulus has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He enjoys helping people from all walks of life build stronger financial foundations.


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