Gene Kessler, 67, may be the new face of mortgage default. The tech industry retiree is in the process of walking away from the home he purchased for $166,000 in 2004 in a small town 75 miles southwest of Minneapolis.

Its value has plummeted to $111,000, wiping out Kessler’s $45,000 down payment and leaving him with a mortgage that’s more than the home is worth. He stopped paying the loan six months ago, and estimates he’ll have to vacate by March 2012.

But Kessler isn’t in financial trouble, and he could afford the monthly payments. He has no other debts and two pensions from former employers, as well as Social Security. He also has a woodworking hobby, and runs a small business selling the artisan lamps he makes in galleries. He’s single now, and his two children are grown and gone.

“I was looking for a way to get back to a larger city, and this was the only way I could get out of this house,” says Kessler, who paid $800 to to help guide him through the process known as strategic default. He’s anticipating a move to a warmer climate and a more active art and dating scene in Santa Fe, N.M.

There’s no data on the demographics or financial histories of the people receiving recent default notices. But among them are some homeowners who have never defaulted on a loan before, at least according to one poll. surveyed several hundred of its clients earlier this year, and just 23% said they had previously shirked a financial obligation.

“The people we are now seeing are nearing retirement age, who never missed a payment on anything in their lives,” says Jon Maddux, co-founder and CEO of the Carlsbad, Calif., firm. “They are trapped. They can’t sell or get a modification and they need to downsize or move for a job.”

Attitudes toward default have also shifted, Maddux says. “Back in 2008 people were very emotional, very scared, in disbelief or denial,” he says. “Now they are simply fed up. It’s a very calculated, black-and-white business decision. People feel very relieved.”

A more widespread understanding of the consequences of default may be a factor, says Brent White, a University of Arizona law professor and author of Underwater Home.

“The conventional wisdom is you are ruined and are not going to recover,” says White, who wrote a widely circulated discussion paper on the topic. But in so-called “non-recourse” states such as California, the bank can only foreclose on the property and resell it. If the price is less than the amount owed on the mortgage, the lender can’t sue the homeowner to recoup the shortfall, says White.

White says underwater homeowners should figure out if they are paying substantially more to own a house on a monthly basis than they would pay to rent a similar property. “Even if you are thousands of dollars underwater, if you are paying the same as you would to rent, you don’t gain that much financially by defaulting,” he says. (The survey by found a quarter of respondents saved 50% or more on housing expenses when they rented after their default.)

In addition, someone who will need a good credit score to run a small business or borrow to meet a goal, such as a child’s college education, should avoid strategic default. “If you have a particular need for easy credit in the future, then it doesn’t make financial sense,” White notes.

As for Kessler, he is looking forward to biking, tennis and skiing in the Southwest next year. “I don’t feel guilty at all about walking away from the place,” he says. “The banks really did it to themselves. They made a ton of money with me over the years. I owned four or five houses. But I don’t think I’ll ever buy another house. I’ll probably just rent until they put me in a nursing home.”


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