As 30% of the homes with mortgages in California are underwater, strategic defaults will probably increase.
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 YouWalkAway.com 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.
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. Even in recourse states, the bank is unlikely to go after the homeowner following foreclosure, he argues.
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 YouWalkAway.com found a quarter of respondents saved 50% or more on housing expenses when they rented after their default.)