Homeowners encounter serious problems when they cannot pay (and have not paid) the mortgage especially if they have negative equity in the property (meaning that the mortgage is more than the fair market value).
Whether you took on a mortgage payment that you could not afford - i.e., purchased "too much house" - or some other temporary situation has impacted your finances such as an unexpected medical expense, loss of a job or other significant interruption in income, the bank will begin threatening foreclosure when you get behind on payments. At this point, you must weigh your options.
If you can afford your mortgage payment and have just gotten behind then you may be able to work out a mortgage modification directly with your bank, but if they are not willing or able to work with you then bankruptcy can forestall a foreclosure proceeding. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you will have to pay any mortgage arrears if you want to keep the property, but the foreclosure will likely be delayed partially during the process. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the mortgage arrears can be included in your payment plan so long as they will result in a full payoff of the arrears by the end of the plan.
If you can't afford the payments, and your financial situation does not permit a mortgage modification, then your options may include bankruptcy, short sale, or foreclosure, or some combination of those.
In a short sale, the bank or mortgage lender agrees to discount a loan balance because of an economic or financial hardship on the part of the borrower. The home owner/debtor sells the mortgaged property for less than the outstanding balance of the loan, and turns over the proceeds of the sale to the lender. Borrowers are able to mitigate damage to their credit history, and partially control the debt. It does not extinguish the remaining balance unless settlement is clearly indicated on the acceptance of offer. The borrower must work directly with the lender to seek approval of the short sale by the bank, obtain a purchaser, and complete the transaction before any foreclosure proceedings are completed. (In some cases, the bank may have initiated foreclosure proceedings, in addition to contemplating consent for the short sale.) Timing is critically important, and the debtor is an important part of the short sale process.
However, if the individual does not then pay off the deficient portion of the mortgage (the unpaid portion of the mortgage after the short sale proceeds were applied to the balance), the lender can take further legal action against the debtor to collect the unpaid portion of the mortgage, which may include trustee process attachments, garnishments, or seizure of other assets, depending on the debtor's other property. The debtor may, after the short sale is complete, file for Bankruptcy upon completion of the short sale to discharge any deficiency and extinguish any further liability to the lender. If the homeowner is already in bankruptcy, they will need the trustee or court's approval to transfer the property in a short sale.
Foreclosure and Bankruptcy:
A final option is to simply file for bankruptcy, and indicate that the debtor's intention is to surrender the property to the bank. Procedurally, the Bankruptcy case will progress through the Bankruptcy Court, and eventually the secured lender will seek permission from the Bankruptcy Court to be relieved of the automatic stay protections, and begin foreclosure proceedings. Regardless of whether the foreclosure auction is completed by the bank before or after the debtor's discharge (meaning they no longer owe certain debts, including the mortgage debt), any deficiency from the foreclosure auction is discharged by the bankruptcy court. From the debtor's perspective, the whole process is completed through the bankruptcy, and does not require any specific participation directly with the lender.
This option provides a swift resolution to the issue of past-due mortgage debt, the pending foreclosure on the property, and any mortgage deficiency all in one process that, in the case of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, can be completed from filing to discharge in under six months. It is best utilized when the lender will not agree to a short sale, when there is insufficient time to arrange a short sale, or when the debtor's other financial concerns (such as collection actions on other debt) require immediate action. It also does not require the lender's permission or cooperation - provided you qualify for bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Laws dictate the result, not the lender's business decision.
The credit implications of a foreclosure and bankruptcy (or in the context of bankruptcy) are more detrimental than a short sale followed by bankruptcy, if the debtor wants to obtain a mortgage again in the future.