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.
"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.
Strategic Defaults by State
See data on "strategic defaults" -- homeowners who choose to default on their mortgage even though they could still afford to pay it.
Analysts at Deutsche Bank Securities expect 21 million U.S. households to end up owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth by the end of 2010. If one in five of those households defaults, the losses to banks and investors could exceed $400 billion. As a proportion of the economy, that's roughly equivalent to the losses suffered in the savings-and-loan debacle of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The flip side of those losses, though, is massive debt relief that can help offset the pain of rising unemployment and put cash in consumers' pockets.
For the 4.8 million U.S. households that data provider LPS Applied Analytics estimates haven't paid their mortgages in at least three months, the added cash flow could amount to about $5 billion a month -- an injection that in the long term could be worth more than the tax breaks in the Obama administration's economic-stimulus package.
"It's a stealth stimulus," says Christopher Thornberg of Beacon Economics, a consulting firm specializing in real estate and the California economy. "The quicker these people shed their debts, the faster the economy is going to heal and move forward again."
As the stigma of abandoning a mortgage wanes, the Obama administration could face an uphill battle in its effort to keep people in their homes by pressuring banks to cut their mortgage payments. Some analysts argue that's not always the right approach, particularly if it prevents people from shedding onerous debts and starting afresh.
"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.
The 3100 block of Club Rancho Drive, built by Beazer Homes mostly in 2002, captures the essence of Palmdale's appeal. Winding along the southern edge of the Rancho Vista golf course just south of Avenue N-8, its spacious homes, verdant lawns and imported birch and sycamore trees exude a sense of middle-class tranquility.
Club Rancho became a solid community of owner-occupiers, many of whom stretched their finances to the limit. As of the end of 2007, total mortgage debt attached to the 13 houses on the block for which records are available had reached $4.5 million.
Fast-forward to the end of 2009, and the picture changes radically. Thanks to a 50% drop in home prices, at least two owners on the block now owe between $60,000 and $160,000 more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Four more homes have already passed through foreclosure into the hands of new owners.
In the process, the block's total mortgage debt has fallen 37%, to $2.7 million.
Much of Club Rancho also has converted to rentals, a shift mirrored across Palmdale. Five homes on the 3100 block are now occupied by renters, up from only two in 2007. In the past six months, at least three families have moved into those rentals after walking away from other homes.
Ms. Richey, the teacher, arrived in Palmdale in 1999. In 2004, she and her husband, Timothy, bought a two-story home on Caspian Drive, near Avenue O-8, with a no-down-payment loan. They took pride in the amenities they installed: a powder room with granite countertops, a backyard pool and play area, and the purple-and-turquoise fantasy playroom upstairs for their three daughters.
But the value of the house plunged to less than $200,000 in 2009. Their $430,000 mortgage, with its $3,700 monthly payment, began to look more like an unwanted burden. By May, amid troubles getting tenants for two rental properties she also owned, Ms. Richey decided the time had come to cut a deal with America's Servicing Co., a unit of Wells Fargo & Co. servicing the mortgage on the house.
After three months of wrangling, she says she finally received a modification approval. The new monthly payment: about $3,300, far more than she had hoped. A Wells Fargo spokesman confirmed the bank offered Ms. Richey a modification under the Obama administration's Making Home Affordable program, and said, "The Richeys turned down the lowest payment we could offer."
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."
Tom Sobelman, whose family of four lives across the street from Ms. Richey, at 3127 Club Rancho Drive, sees mortgages as a moral as well as financial obligation. He's still paying the mortgage on an investment property he owns nearby, despite the fact that the rent is about $1,000 a month short of covering his costs.
Mr. Sobelman, 37, argues that people who choose to default are unfairly benefiting at the expense of taxpayers, who have put trillions of dollars at risk to bail out struggling banks. "All these people are gaming the system, and I'm paying for it," he says. "My kids are going to be paying it off."
Mr. Sobelman has plenty of company. In a recent study of people who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth, economists Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales found that about four out of five believe defaulting on a mortgage is morally wrong if one can afford to pay it. But they also found that the people become 82% more likely to say they'll default if they know someone else who defaulted.
Moral or not, the individuals who want to shed their mortgage debts are quickly transforming the Palmdale real-estate market.
Adam Robbins, who runs the local Realty World franchise and manages about 80 properties, says about 90% of his prospective tenants are people in Ms. Richey's situation. So he and other rental managers are loosening rules to accept people who have been through foreclosures.
"Those are all good people," he says. "They just got bad loans or bought at the wrong time."
Ms. Richey and her family made the move to Club Rancho Drive in August, when she was already several months behind on the mortgage. With Mr. Robbins's help, she recently sold the house on Caspian Drive for $195,000, money that the bank will accept to settle the $430,000 mortgage debt. She's also considering walking away from the mortgages on her two rental properties.
Showing a visitor the personal touches in her new home, including a $1,800 dining set she bought with some of her newly available income, she notes the advantages of being a renter rather than an owner.
"You take a risk for the American dream," she says. "I don't have to worry about paying property tax, homeowners' insurance, the landscaping, cleaning the pool or any repairs."
Others on Ms. Richey's block have made similar moves. Mr. Fernandez, the firefighter, moved into 3139 in July, after stopping the $4,800 monthly payments on the home he owned around the corner on Champion Way.
Mr. Fernandez says he made four attempts to modify the larger of the two mortgages on his home, which add up to $423,000. Ultimately, he was offered a monthly payment that, together with back taxes, was higher than what he had been paying. Today he's working to partially reimburse his lenders, IndyMac Bank (now OneWest Bank) and American First Credit Union, by selling the home, which he expects to fetch about $300,000.
A spokeswoman for OneWest Bank said the bank "offered Mr. Fernandez the lowest payment possible under the [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] loan modification guidelines." A spokesman for American First said the company always seeks to help clients stay in their homes.
With an income of about $8,300 a month and a rent of $2,200, Mr. Fernandez says he now has the wherewithal to do things he couldn't when he was stretching to pay the mortgage. He recently went to concerts by Rob Thomas and Mat Kearney. He also kept his black BMW 6 Series coupe, which has payments of about $700 a month.
"I don't know if I'll buy another house again, because it's such a huge headache," he says.