Is My HELOC a Recourse or Non-Recourse Loan in California?

My first mortgage is a non-recourse loan, but what about my HELOC? How does the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act help me?

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Bill's Answer: Answered by Mark Cappel

I see three major issues in your question.


When a mortgage lender forecloses on a home, the lender will generally sell the property, either at auction or by offering the property through a broker. Once the home is sold, the lender applies the sale proceeds to the balance of the original mortgage. If the sale proceeds are insufficient to cover the entire amount owed, which is often the case, especially with the recent drop in home prices, the remaining debt becomes a "deficiency balance." Depending on the type of loan and the laws of the state in which the property is located, the lender may be able to pursue the borrower for payment of the remaining deficiency balance of the debt.

Recourse vs. Non-recourse Loans in California

A recourse loan is one where the lender has the legal means to collect the deficiency balance from the borrower. A non-recourse loan is a loan where the creditor's ability to collect on a defaulted loan is restricted to any assets used to secure the loan. In other words, if the lender forecloses, then it cannot get a deficiency judgment and attempt to collect it from the borrower. Whether a loan is recourse or non-recourse varies with the state you reside in, and the nature of the loan.

California recourse rules are intricate and somewhat tricky. (We cite California statutes and case law here as an aid for your attorney to research your issues and facts.) Under California law, a lender cannot pursue a borrower for a deficiency balance resulting from a first mortgage used to purchase a residence. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 580b)

In California, purchase money loans made on your home are non-recourse. (Roseleaf Corp. v. Chierighino, 59 Cal. 2d 35, 41 (1963) and Spangler v. Memel, 7 Cal. 3d 603, 610, and 612 (1972).) A "purchase money" loan is one where the money went from the lender, to escrow, and then to the seller or to pay purchase closing costs. If the borrower never refinanced and the property is still encumbered by the original purchase money deed, the anti-deficiency protection remains. (Foothill Village Homeowners Ass'n v. Bishop, 68 Cal. App. 4th 1364, 1367 n.1 (1999).)

Second mortgages may or may not be recourse loans under California law. If the second mortgage was taken out at the time of sale and was used as purchase money loan then it is a non-recourse loan (Brown v. Jensen, 41 Cal.2d 193 (1953).) However, if the second mortgage was financed after the initial purchase of the property and is on a second deed, then Section 580b does not apply. Similarly, Section 580b also does not apply when the borrower has refinanced the property to take out additional equity or obtain financing at better terms (Union Bank v. Wendland, 54 Cal. App. 3d 393, 400 (1976).)

California Recourse & Non-recourse HELOC Loans

A Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) is akin to a credit card secured by property. No money changes hands until the consumer draws on the HELOC, which is customarily not done at the moment of purchase.

By contrast, a Home Equity Loan is a lump sum borrowed at the time of purchase or thereafter and is similar to a second mortgage. How an agent/broker structures the home equity loan may determine whether a home equity loan is a recourse loan.

Many banks limit the size of mortgage loans they will extend to 80% of the appraised value of the home being purchased. Traditionally, the remaining 20% of the purchase price was covered by the borrower's down payment.

During the housing boom of the mid-2000s, people who had little or no money to bring to the table as a down payment were able to purchase homes through various creative financing arrangements. To sell a home to an individual with no money for a down payment, a broker would often arrange with the seller to formally transfer the home to the buyer for 80% of its appraised value. A separate agreement would then be made between the buyer and the seller for the buyer to pay the remaining 20% immediately following the transfer of the property. The broker would pre-arrange a home equity loan for the 20% unencumbered equity (since the home was sold for 80% of the actual value, the new owner now had 20% equity); once the property was formally transferred, the 20% home equity loan could be finalized, with the proceeds used to pay off the 20% of the value that the buyer (now the owner) still owed to the seller.

All of these transactions took place in immediate succession, so to the buyer and the seller, it looked like a single deal. However, from a legal perspective, the home equity loan closed after the sale of the property was final (since the home had already been transferred to the buyer), which could make the home equity loan a recourse loan under California law.

I do not know how your financing was arranged. I provided the scenario above as an example of how complicated home financing can be and how a home equity loan, even one signed at the same closing as the first mortgage and sale documents, may be a recourse loan.

Here, you may or may not be liable for a deficiency balance on the 80% first-mortgage loan depending on whether it is the purchase money loan you used when buying the property. Regarding your 20% second mortgage HELOC, the same analysis applies. Review your loan documents carefully to determine when the loans were taken out, and how the deed or deeds read for each of the loans. I urge you consult with a California attorney experienced in property law to review your loan documents, deeds, and titles on the property.

In many cases, home equity lenders are considered "junior encumbrances" to the first mortgage, and are entitled to a portion of the sale proceeds only after the first mortgage holder collects 100% of the amount it is owed. Therefore, many people end up owing large deficiency balances on their home equity and second mortgage loans.

Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act

Under federal law, a lender must report to the IRS any forgiveness of a debt in an amount larger than $600. Borrowers are required to report this amount on form 1099-C when they file their income taxes. The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act exempts borrowers from the tax liability that would otherwise be created by a lender forgiving a portion of their loan balance, either in a short sale, loan modification, or as the result of a foreclosure. This legislation does not prevent your home equity lender from pursuing you for payment of a deficiency balance, if the lender chooses to try to collect the debt.

According to the IRS, the benefits of Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act can be used for debts forgiven in tax years 2007 through 2012.

In answer to your question, I believe you could still benefit from this law if your home is not sold until 2012. The date of the forgiveness really has little to do with the date of foreclosure; it is the date on which the lender actually forgave the debt. If you negotiate a short sale, it would likely be the date that the sale is finalized. In a foreclosure, the date of forgiveness could really be any date after the foreclosure, as the creditor can choose to forgive the debt at any time, if it decides to do so.

Any amount forgiven outside of the period covered by the "Relief Act" may be taxable as regular income. If one of your lenders forgives a debt, you should receive a form 1099-C from the lender, which would show the amount and the date of the debt cancellation.

I encourage you to consult with a qualified tax professional if you receive a 1099-C, so that you can make sure you are correctly calculating what you owe and to ensure that you are taking advantage of all exemptions available to you. The IRS offers valuable information about the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act.

To learn more about foreclosure, I invite you to visit the foreclosure page.

I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.



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Comments (224)

Sonia S.
Fairfax, VA  |  January 31, 2012
I just received a 1099c from BofA for the debt forgiven on my HELOC. The HELOC was part of my original loan and from what I can see in messages throughout this page, is considered part of the original purchase loan (80/20?). My house in CA was foreclosed on in 2010 and I was told at that time by BofA that the two loans would collapse and I would receive one 1099c. That's not what happened. I received a 1099c for 2010 for the home and now I just received another for the HELOC. This 1099c shows I'm personally liable for the debt whereas the first 1099c said the opposite. Had they combined the loans as I was told, the debt I would have been responsible for would not have been as much because the mortgage company was evidently given surplus funds which created a value of my house greated than what I owed. With this 1099c of over $56k, am I going to be responsible for the taxes on this amount? I've tried talking to the bank to reissue the 1099c to say I am not personally responsible, but they feel they were doing me a favor by forgiving the loan and not coming after me for that. Thank you
January 31, 2012
Please read the resource Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act to learn if you qualify.
D O.
Palm Desert, CA  |  February 14, 2012
Hi Sonia, We are having the same issue. What have you learned since posting this question? Will we have to pay taxes on the heloc, even though it was purchase money to buy the house?
Sonia S.
Fairfax, VA  |  February 15, 2012
I haven't learned anything concrete. I will be talking to my tax preparer and also a real estate attorney familiar with this issue to see what my options are. I tried to get the bank to re-issue the 1099 to say I wasn't responsible for the debt, but no such luck.
M G.
Marion, IA  |  February 15, 2012
February 16, 2012
Speaking with your tax preparer is smart. It is my understanding you can file and use the IRS Form 982 even if you did not get the 1099-C. It is similar to a person who works as an independent contractor and does not receive a 1099. In such a case, the contractor still declares the income and indicates to the IRS that no 1099 was received.
Monica O.
El Cajon, CA  |  January 30, 2012
Hello, Our home was just forclosed on in June 2010. Now, our Lender for the second is coming after me for the money. My husband was not on the loans, but held title on the property and is listed on both Deeds of Trust. My husband filed for bankruptcy in March 2010. His attorney let me know that I would be protected under common law in California and since my husband claimed BK, they are not able to come after me for the money. I have told our Lender this information and they continue to pursue payment. Have you heard of a spouse being protected under Common Law?
January 30, 2012
California common law does not apply in this instance, but federal bankruptcy law does. If a spouse files under chapter 7 in any state, the spouse is not protected. However, if the spouse files for chapter 13 in a community property state, he or she enjoys the same protections the filing spouse has under bankruptcy law. Therefore, my questions for you are, "What chapter of bankruptcy did your spouse file?" and "Where is your spouse's case in this process?"

Ask your spouse to consult with the bankruptcy attorney to learn more about any stay that may protect you from creditors.
Dan Y.
Lincoln, CA  |  January 23, 2012
I purchased a home in Rocklin, CA for $455k with 94k down leaving a balance of 361k. The 1st loan was 300k and the 2nd HELOC was 61k. To purchase another property, I refinanced the 61k HELOC with another from a different institution and borrowed 100k seeing the home still appraised at 460k. So, the original HELOC was paid off and another one was in place giving me 40k to put down on another home. I understand that once re-financing a HELOC or borrowing from a HELOC removes the protection from recourse, but in my situation, my HELOC was simply replaced with another that still was used as purchase money towards the home. In 2008, due to tough circumstances, a short sale was performed with the 2nd getting nothing. Come almost 4 years later I am still getting calls from 3rd party institutions. Since then, the loan has been transferred 4 times to different companies trying to collect. Is this something I am liable for? Also, seeing it has been 4 years, how does the CA statue of limitations come into play?
January 23, 2012
It is unclear to me if you were foreclosed on the first property you financed, or the second property. I will assume you ask about the first you purchased.

Take a few moments to read the California decisions we cite in the original answer above regarding how refinancing removes California's anti-deficiency protection. I disagree with the court's reasoning in Union Bank v. Wendland, but that is the precedent subsequent decisions rely upon.

You mentioned California's statute of limitations. There are many to choose from, but the one most relevant to you is found in Calif. CCP 580a, which gives a plaintiff (the lender or its assign) three months after the date of foreclosure sale to file an action to collect a money judgment related to a deficiency. It is unclear to me if the three month time limit to file an action under CCP 580a applies to all deficiency balances, or those subject to 580b-580e only. Consult with a lawyer who has real property litigation experience for a better guess.

If CCP 580a does not apply to you, then CCP 337 probably does, which is the 4-year statute of limitations for a written contract. See the resource Statute of Limitations for a discussion of what this law means to debtors.
Dan Y.
Lincoln, CA  |  January 24, 2012
Thank you for the quick reply. Yes, I was referring to my 1st home being foreclosed. Seeing I replaced one HELOC with another (even though all funds went towards the home the 2nd time around) I assume this is now recourse? It has now been well over 4 years since making payments on the home....but it will be 4 years this June to mark the actual foreclosure date. Third party collectors have been hounding me for the HELOC to this day, am i covered under the CA statue of limitations currently? Or is my 4 years up from the foreclosure date? Also, if I am covered under the 4 year CA SOL, would this mean I would be no longer liable for the debt? I appreciate the help.
January 25, 2012
The loan you refinanced is no longer a purchase money loan, and therefore is not covered by California's anti-deficiency law. It is, as you mentioned, a recourse loan.

Although I gave you an ambiguous answer earlier, I am more convinced now that the three-month statute of limitations in 580a applies here. However, I hasten to add I am not a California judge, and how a California court applies 580a may be different.

Please read the resources California Statute of Limitations and Which Statute of Limitations Applies to Your Situation to learn more about this issue.
Kari F.
December 08, 2011
I purchased a home back in 2006 with a 1st and a 2nd. I think it's what you would call an 80/20. Our house was foreclosed on in 2008, and now almost 3 years later we were notified that we owe the full amount of the 2nd. We never took out an equity line of credit or refinanced the house. Does this qualify as a non-recourse loan, and do we owe this money?
December 08, 2011
Let us assume the home in question was situated in California. If your two loans were purchase-money loans, and you never refinanced the second (the loan you mentioned), then the second is covered by California's anti-deficiency rule. The first is, too, for that matter. Consult with a California lawyer who has real property experience for a more thorough analysis. Please return here and share what you learn.
Mun C.
Port Hueneme, CA  |  November 11, 2011
We originally purchased our home with zero down, 80/20 back in 2004. Three years later we refinanced those two loans to BofA and a Wells SmartFit Equity line of credit. How do I find out if my second (Wells) is a recourse loan or not?
November 14, 2011
I will assume you ask about a California property. Please reread the original answer/article above to learn more about California's anti-deficiency rules and how to tell if your loan is a recourse loan.
Mun C.
Port Hueneme, CA  |  November 14, 2011
Yes, sorry. This is CA I am speaking about. It also appears that even though you could have a recouse loan, deficiency judgments against you do not seem to be allowed if the foreclosure was done non-judicially. Can you also touch on this as well as it pertains to recourse loans? Thanks
November 14, 2011
California's anti-deficiency law is nuanced, and we attempted to capture this in the original answer above.

Almost 100% of California's foreclosures are non-judicial. See the resource California Mortgage Foreclosure Process to learn more about California's rules.
John C.
Alta Loma, CA  |  October 24, 2011
Hi Bill, We have a home in California we purchased in 2002 for 265k. We refinanced in 2005 for 600k 1st and 35k second. We completed a large 250k add on and pool, new windows, doors, AC etc on the home with the money and paid off debt. The house is valued currently at about 510k. I can afford my home and have credit close to 800 FICO so no problems financially. Here is my problem. My next door neighbor moved in about 3 years ago and I found out he is listed as a sex offender on the Megans law website. I pulled his public record and it is not pretty, so having 3 daughters I have no interest in remaining in this house. I obviously am negative equity and can't cover the short amount to sell. With my financial situation my bank will not allow me to short sell. I would like to walk away but don't know what the repercussions are. Can you let me know what my exposure likely is. Thanks,
October 24, 2011
See the resources Strategic Default On Investment Property and Strategic Mortgage Default and Deficiency Balance for discussions of the issues you raise in your message. I encourage you to ask any follow-up questions you may have on the appropriate page.
Chris J.
Elk Grove, CA  |  October 17, 2011
I purchased a home for 300k from Countrywide, now BofA. It was a 80/20, with first being a five year interest only, and second a purchase money HELOC. I haven't touched the HELOC for anything other than making the regular monthly payments. A couple years ago, the first loan was modded in which the interest rate was reduced (and then gradually increases in a step-rate manner). I'm in the process of pursuing a short sale - theoretically, if approved, then my second, the HELOC, should be cleared as part of the sale given the CA Anti-Deficiency Act? Thank you!
October 18, 2011
In a California foreclosure: Was the HELOC a purchase money loan? If the answer is yes, then it is subject to California's anti-deficiency (sometimes called no-recourse) rules.

In a California short sale: Under SB 458, which was passed in mid-2011, deficiency balances for all notes secured by mortgages or deeds of trust may not be owed or collected. See California Code of Civil Procedure 580e.
Helen P.
Tarzana, CA  |  October 13, 2011
Hi, I have a mortgage on my home in the amount of 207000 owned by Fenny May and a credit line in the amount of $175000 owed by US Bank. If I will stop paying my credit line, what consequences am I looking for? This Credit line was obtained several years after we bought the house.
October 14, 2011
Unfortunately for many, this is a common question. Please see the resource Second Mortgage Foreclosure to learn more about this issue. I encourage you to ask any follow-up questions you may have on that page.

I realize you wrote "credit line," but in this context it is really just a tarted-up second mortgage, and legally and financially all junior mortgages and deeds of trust are the same.
Heidi H.
Rocklin, CA  |  October 06, 2011
We purchased a condo in 2005 for 380K and it was foreclosed on in 2009. We had a HELOC for 85K through Wells Fargo and just last month were served with a lawsuit from WF for the full amount. We have an attempted to settle the debt for a lump sum, but they will not budge. We have another home loan through WF and if they continue to come after us for money we do not have, we will be forced to foreclose on this home too! Is there anything we can do?
October 07, 2011
Wells Fargo may be the mortgage servicer for your present loan and for the old HELOC, but it is probably working for two separate investors, each of which it owes a fiduciary responsibility. In other words, it cannot favor one investor over the other. What does this mean to you? Wells Fargo does not possess any special rights simply because it services both mortgages.

See the resource Collections Advice to read an overview of your rights and liabilities.
Kelly S.
Santa Monica, CA  |  October 05, 2011
We purchased our house in 2004 and got a HELOC. since then our HELOC is frozen and we are behind on the mortgage. We did get a trial modification for the 1st mortgage. Also, we now have a lien on the house from another bank from a personal loan my husband guaranteed with our personal assets. That loan is current but the bank took the lien, just in case. That lien is MORE than my HELOC so does the HELOC move to the 3rd position?
October 06, 2011
No, it is not the size of the loan that determines lien position. The first mortgage is first, the HELOC second, and the next lien that gets in line is in third position.It is a matter of who got in line first.
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