04/04/2011 02:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Men and Women Deal With a Home Walkaway

A Trulia/Harris survey in 2010 found that 57% of men would consider strategic default, but only 40% of women would. In the real world of mortgage default, where walkaways are far more often for survival than strategy, I found the opposite. Here's how it plays out.

Taking one paragraph to get past the hypothetical strategic defaults and on to real survival walkaways, this is an educated guess at why men might be more willing to default simply because a house is underwater: men have less emotion invested in a house. Where women decorate, choose the furniture, and add the touches that make a house a home, to men a house can look like a never-ending to-do list.

In survival walkaways, the man/woman ratio is reversed, in my experience. In the course of many face-to-face conversations with debtors, often right at their kitchen table with the numbers laid out on paper, when "the kids are on the table," so to speak, the women are more willing to walk.

The men always bring up the issue of their credit score, usually accompanied by unlikely scenarios about being fired from their job -- but when the numbers say that staying in the home means no shoes for the kids, the women are remarkably unsentimental -- in fact their facial expressions look like they're thinking about packing, garage sales, and how to stay in the same school district. The latter was confirmed at one kitchen table session when the first thing the mother said was "The townhouses on Elm Street are in our school district." Then she went on to look at the furniture they didn't need. Momma Bear was all business: it's the family.

With single mothers the lack of sentiment is even more dramatic -- credit scores hardly enter the conversation. In fact the lack of drama was so surprising that I later called three of the single mothers I'd worked with and asked if they hadn't give any thought to their credit, and whether they missed the house they'd given up for an apartment. All three said they had thought about credit, and deeply missed their house, but those weren't primary issues at the time.

Then I met Poppa Bear, a "single dad" as he called himself. He was as unsentimental as a single mother. Walking away from the mortgage was emotionally like water running off a duck's back, when it came to a choice between a contract and the children. As with single mothers, credit rating was a "deal with it later" issue. Since then I've spoken to more single fathers, and the most consistent comment has been "I have more time to spend with the kids." When it came to the home, if anything the single fathers' attitude was "good riddance to the maintenance."

With no children in the picture, in my experience, men and women act about the same: their behavior depends on how much they link their self-esteem to their FICO score. This is not cynicism, simply observation, and as Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot by just watching. "Morality" doesn't really seem to come into the picture much, except for a few religious denominations that place a heavy emphasis on paying off debts.

So away from the surveys and out on the streets, neither gender nor the breadwinner role are what counts when it comes to looking out for the family. When push comes to shove, it's the caregiver who makes the wise financial decisions.