When foreclosure sale proceeds aren't sufficient to repay the full amount of a mortgage loan, the difference between the sale price and the total debt is called a deficiency. (A short sale or deed in lieu of foreclosure might also result in a deficiency.) Many states allow a lender to get a deficiency judgment—a personal judgment—against a borrower for the amount of the deficiency.
In certain states, a lender can get a deficiency judgment against a borrower for the amount of the deficiency.
Example. Suppose Jonas owes $350,000 on a house he bought for $400,000, but is now worth $300,000, according to a recent appraisal. The lender forecloses on the property and the home sells at an auction for $300,000. In Jonas’s state, the lender can file a lawsuit after the foreclosure seeking the difference between the sale price and the amount owed on the loan—in this case, $50,000. Once the lender gets a deficiency judgment, the lender may use the judgment to go after Jonas' paycheck (through a wage garnishment) and bank account (with a bank levy).
In other states, though, you don’t have to worry about a deficiency judgment. Some states prohibit lenders from suing for deficiencies under certain circumstances, like after a nonjudicial foreclosure. Loans that fit in this category are sometimes called non-recourse loans.
Check our Summary of State Foreclosure Laws to learn more about your state’s laws on deficiency judgments.
If a foreclosure is nonjudicial, a lender has to file a lawsuit to get a deficiency judgment. In a judicial foreclosure, on the other hand, most states allow the lender to seek a deficiency judgment as part of the underlying foreclosure lawsuit; a few states require a separate lawsuit.
Many states have a law that limits the amount of the deficiency to the difference between the debt and the property’s fair market value. For instance, if your state has this type of law and you owe the lender $400,000, the fair market value of your home is $350,000, and the property sells at a foreclosure sale for $300,000, the deficiency judgment is limited to $50,000—even though the lender technically lost $100,000, which is the difference between the amount owed and the sales price. Fair market value typically is determined by a fairly complex statutory appraisal process set out in state statutes.
You might be able to wipe out your liability to pay a deficiency judgment by filing for bankruptcy. In the process, you might also be able to get rid of other debt, like credit card balances, unpaid medical and utility bills, and personal loans.
Deficiency judgment laws vary from state to state and can be complex. If you’re facing a foreclosure, it’s important to understand how the law works in your state. To find out, consider talking to a knowledgeable foreclosure lawyer. If you’re thinking about filing for bankruptcy to eliminate your responsibility to pay a deficiency judgment, consider talking to a bankruptcy attorney.