“IT’S JUST A BETTER LIFE. IT REALLY IS.”
PALMDALE, Calif. — Schoolteacher Shana Richey misses the playroom she decorated with Glamour Girl decals for her daughters. Fireman Jay Fernandez misses the custom putting green he installed in his backyard.
But ever since they quit paying their mortgages and walked away from their homes, they’ve discovered that giving up on the American dream has its benefits.
Both now live on the 3100 block of Club Rancho Drive in Palmdale, where a terrible housing market lets them rent luxurious homes — one with a pool for the kids, the other with a golf-course view — for a fraction of their former monthly payments.
A Wall Street Journal Article states the housing bust has brought big changes to the 3100 block of Club Rancho Drive in Palmdale, Calif. See details on the homes, debts and residents.
“It’s just a better life. It really is,” says Ms. Richey. Before defaulting on her mortgage, she owed about $230,000 more than the home was worth.
People’s increasing willingness to abandon their own piece of America illustrates a paradoxical change wrought by the housing bust: Even as it tarnishes the near-sacred image of home ownership, it might be clearing the way for an economic recovery.
Thanks to a rare confluence of factors — mortgages that far exceed home values and bargain-basement rents — a growing number of families are concluding that the new American dream home is a rental.
Some are leaving behind their homes and mortgages right away, while others are simply halting payments until the bank kicks them out. That’s freeing up cash to use in other ways.
Ms. Richey’s family of five used some of the money to buy season tickets to Disneyland, and plans to take a Carnival cruise to Mexico in March. Mr. Fernandez takes his girlfriend out to dinner more frequently. “We’re saving lots of money,” Ms. Richey says.
The U.S home-ownership rate has charted its biggest decline in more than two decades, falling to 67.6% as of September from a peak of 69.2% in 2004. And more renters are on the way: Credit firm Experian and consulting firm Oliver Wyman forecast that “strategic defaults” by homeowners who can afford to pay are likely to exceed one million in 2009, more than four times 2007’s level.
Stiffing the bank is bad for peoples’ credit, and bad for banks. Swelling defaults could also mean more losses for taxpayers through bank bailouts.
“The effect of these programs is often to lead homeowners to make decisions that are not in their economic best interests,” says Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has studied mortgage defaults.
Few places in the U.S. were better suited to attract true believers in home ownership than Palmdale. A farming community that expanded in the 1950s to accommodate the aerospace industry around nearby Edwards Air Force Base, the city more than doubled its population from 1990 to the present as it became the final frontier for Los Angeles-area workers looking to buy.
About half of Palmdale’s 147,000 residents endure a daily commute that can extend to two hours or more one way. In return, they get a homestead in a high-desert locale of haunting beauty, with Joshua trees dotting the landscape, and real-estate developments locked into a master grid of streets with anonymous names such as Avenue O-8 or Avenue M-4.
Ms. Richey and her husband had already been working on Plan B — exploring the neighborhood’s “For Rent” signs.
On one trip, they drove by the house at 3152 Club Rancho Drive. It was bigger than their house on Caspian, had a pool with three waterfalls, and boasted a cascading staircase that Ms. Richey says she could picture her daughters descending on prom night. The rent was $2,195 a month.
The situation presented Ms. Richey with a quandary now facing more than 10 million U.S. homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.
On one hand, walking away from her home would be easy. California is one of 10 states that largely prevent mortgage lenders from going after the other assets of borrowers who default. But she also had to consider the negatives. Her credit could be tarnished for years and, perhaps most importantly, she feared her friends and neighbors might ostracize her.
“It was scary,” she says, noting that people tended to keep such decisions to themselves for fear of being stigmatized. “It’s still very hush-hush.”
“I don’t know if I’ll buy another house again, because it’s such a huge headache,” he says.