Foreclosures Reach Country Club Set

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The whispers around Palm Beach drawing rooms these days aren’t just about Biff’s latest DUI or Buffy’s new tummy tuck — it’s much worse than that. According to a new pair of studies, the rate of foreclosures impacting affluent families is on the rise.

First up is a study out by the Florida Association of Realtors and the consulting firm Strategic Guidance Systems. In it, researchers examined a three-year period from March 2006 to February 2009 among Floridians who received a foreclosure notice. Some of what the study found was obvious — for example, 27% of foreclosed homeowners had incomes of $35,000 or less. But 20% had incomes of $100,000 or more, and 15% had college educations.

The other study, The Foreclosure Crisis: Did Wall Street Practice Predatory Lending or Did Households Overreach?, is from the University of Arkansas. In it, economists discovered that most foreclosures weren’t all due to bad lending practices, but by bad borrowing practices, often from well-off consumers.

The University of Arkansas researchers split their study participants into separate demographic groups. While there was plenty of evidence that sub-prime mortgage borrowers were more likely to fall into home foreclosure, a surprising number of foreclosure victims were among a demographic group the study researchers dubbed "Cash & Careers." According to the study, this group is comprised of affluent Americans born between the mid-1960s and 1970s with “high household incomes, high education levels” and who were “aggressive investors.”

According to Tim Yeager, associate professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business and lead author of the University of Arkansas study, affluent households that enter into foreclosure aren’t so uncommon anymore. “Although we did find evidence that low-income households had a higher statistical likelihood of foreclosure, most households in foreclosure were relatively affluent and well educated,” Yeager said. “Also, these household defaults were strongly clustered in southwestern and southeastern states, which is consistent with the overreaching-consumer explanation of the foreclosure crisis.”

The data from both the FAR and the University of Arkansas studies suggest that it wasn’t just unethical lenders pushing shady loans on unsuspecting borrowers. Just as culpable were wealthy — or at least well-off — homeowners who sought bigger home mortgages than they could handle.

“Our evidence does not disprove or excuse reckless subprime lending by the large Wall Street banks,” added Yeager. “We argue that there is plenty of blame to go around for the financial crisis. Both banks and consumers overreached. Banks extended too much credit to households, and households purchased more home than they could afford.”

It’s not just down south either. The national real estate firm Realtytrac reports that tiny Greenwich, Conn., had 34 home foreclosures in January 2010 alone, with 100 total in 2009. Noting the alarming number of foreclosures in such a well-off community, there seems to be a laundry list of items that afflict affluent Americans, too. “Personal traumas like business reversal, illness and divorce play a role,” says The New York Times. “There's no real pattern, with people as diverse as builders, restaurateurs and poker players at risk of losing their homes.”

With the foreclosure needle starting to climb up the dial, it’s time that U.S. homeowners realize that, no matter how many zeros are on your paycheck, nobody is immune from having their house foreclosed on these days.

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