What is an Underwater Mortgage and How to Deal With It

By Ashley Kilroy · July 24, 2023 · 7 minute read

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What is an Underwater Mortgage and How to Deal With It

An underwater mortgage, also known as an upside-down mortgage, occurs when your mortgage has a higher principal balance than the current fair market value of your home. In other words, you owe more on your loan than your home is actually worth. This can happen if housing prices in your area have dropped since the time you purchased your home.

Having a mortgage underwater can make it challenging to refinance your mortgage, take out a second mortgage, or sell your home. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can manage the problem and get out from under an upside-down mortgage. Here’s what you need to know.

What Does it Mean to Have an Underwater Mortgage?

An underwater mortgage is defined as a mortgage in which the principal balance is higher than the home’s fair market value, resulting in negative equity. An underwater (or upside-down) mortgage can happen when property values fall but you still need to repay a large portion of your original loan balance.

Having a mortgage underwater can make refinancing difficult, since lenders generally won’t give you a loan for more than what the home is worth (in fact, they typically will only give you up to 80% of a home’s current value). It can also stand in the way of selling your home, since the proceeds from the sale likely won’t be enough to pay off your mortgage.

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What Causes an Underwater Mortgage?

One of the most common reasons for an underwater mortgage is a decline in property value after the borrower purchases a home.

Homeowners that are most at risk of ending up underwater are those who bought their home recently with a very low down payment. Some lenders and types of mortgage allow you to put as little as 3% or even 0% down. If, for example, a home costs $300,000 and you put down 3%, you start with just $9,000 in equity in your home. If your home’s market value drops by $9,200, you’d be underwater by $200.

As you pay off your mortgage, you gradually chip away at the principal balance and end up with more and more equity. You also build equity as your home (ideally) grows in value over time. This helps protect you from becoming underwater due to any downward fluctuation in housing prices.

Missing payments on your mortgage also puts you at risk of going underwater. When you miss payments, your principal balance doesn’t decrease as fast as it should. As a result, you’re more likely to owe more than your home is worth.

How Do I Know If I Have an Underwater House?

To find out if your home is underwater, you can follow a few simple steps:

1.   Check your loan balance. You can typically find your balance on a recent mortgage statement or by logging into your online account. If you can’t find it, you can always call the company that holds your loan and ask how much you still owe on your mortgage.

2.   Determine how much your home is worth. You can get a good estimate of your home’s current value using online tools from websites like Zillow and Redfin. For a more accurate valuation, you would need to get a professional home appraisal, which may not be worth it unless you absolutely need to know if you are underwater.

3.   See how the numbers compare. By subtracting how much you still owe on your mortgage from your home’s current value, you’ll end up with either a positive number (you’re not underwater) or a negative number (you are underwater).

What Are My Options If My Mortgage Is Underwater?

While you can’t control falling home prices, there are some things you can do to get an underwater mortgage back on dry land. Here are some to consider.

Stay and Keep Paying Down Your Principal

It’s not uncommon to be underwater on a mortgage if you haven’t owned your home for a very long time. If you don’t have an immediate need to sell (such as job relocation), your best bet may be to sit tight and keep on making your mortgage payments. Over time, your equity will increase and home prices may rebound.

If your budget allows, you might also want to make additional payments toward the principal balance in order to get back on track faster.

Explore Refinancing

Generally, you can’t refinance a mortgage that is underwater. However, there are some exceptions. If you have a government-backed loan (such as a FHA, USDA, or VA loan) and you qualify for a streamline refinance, you can refinance without a home appraisal. This allows you to get a new loan even if your current mortgage is underwater. It may be possible to use a streamline refinance to lower your interest rate or shorten your repayment term, which can help you pay down your principal (and get out from being underwater) faster.

In the past, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae offered special refinancing programs for underwater mortgages, but they’ve temporarily stopped taking applications due to low volume.

Work With Your Lender

If you’re having trouble keeping up with your monthly payments, or you need to relocate and sell your home, it can be worth reaching out to your lender to discuss your options. You may be able to do one of the following:

Modify Your Loan

Your lender might agree to loan modification, which involves changing one or more terms of the loan. For example, you may be able to lower your monthly payment by extending your repayment term or reducing your interest rate. A lender might even agree to lower your principal balance. Just keep in mind that any amount of negative equity forgiven by your mortgage lender can count as income, so you’ll want to factor that in come tax time.

Short Sale

In a short sale, the lender agrees to accept a sales price that is less than the amount owed on the mortgage, effectively taking a loss. Typically, a lender will only consider a short sale as a final option before foreclosure. A short sale is typically preferable to a foreclosure for both parties involved — it costs less for the lender and is less damaging to the borrower’s credit history.

Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure

A deed in lieu allows you to forfeit ownership of your home to the lender, typically as a way to avoid the foreclosure process. If you go with this option, you’ll want to make sure you get all the details of the agreement in writing, so you are not liable for any remaining amount owed on the mortgage down the line.

File for Bankruptcy

A last resort option that you would only want to pursue if you’ve tried everything else, is to file for bankruptcy. There are two different types:

•  Chapter 13 With this type of bankruptcy, the court will put you on a plan to repay some or all of your debt. You won’t lose your home and will have time to work on getting your mortgage current. The court will monitor your budget, and your repayment plan will typically last for three to five years.

•  Chapter 7 This means all (or most) of your assets will be sold by the court to repay your debt. As a result, you could lose your home, car, or other assets. Any remaining debt is forgiven.

Filing for any type of bankruptcy is expensive, distressing, and can have serious and long-lasting consequences on your credit. However, it may provide much-needed relief if you’re deeply underwater on your mortgage.

Foreclose on Your Home

Foreclosure is another last resort option. In foreclosure, the lender will take control of your home, and, if you’re still living there, you’ll be evicted. The lender will typically then sell the house as quickly as possible to try to recoup as much money as they can. You’ll have your debt wiped away clean but your credit will be badly damaged and you’ll likely have to wait seven years before getting another mortgage. In addition, the canceled mortgage amount may count as taxable income.

The Takeaway

If you owe more on your home than it’s currently worth, you’re underwater (or upside down) on your mortgage. This can happen if property values drop and you don’t have a lot of equity built in your home. While it’s not an ideal situation to be in, there are options, including waiting it out, exploring possible refinancing options, and working with your lender to modify your loan.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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