Someone that lives in a non-recourse state buys property in a recourse state. All signatures where done by mail in their home state. Is it automatically a recourse loan since the property is located in a state that allows recourse or is the loan automatically a non-recourse loan as the buyer resides in a non-recourse state and paperwork was signed in a non-recourse state?

  • Which states are involved?
    – mkennedy
    Commented May 21, 2020 at 0:00
  • California and Tennessee (property location) Commented May 22, 2020 at 5:21

1 Answer 1


Short Answer

The question of whether a real property mortgage is recourse or non-recourse is governed by the law of the jurisdiction where the real property is located. The place where the parties to the agreement reside, or where the documents are signed, is irrelevant. I am not aware of any exceptions to this rule anywhere in the world.

In some circumstances, the parties may reach an agreement regarding whether a real property mortgage is recourse or non-recourse if the law of the jurisdiction permits agreements of this type. But, often the parties are not allowed to vary this aspect of their real property mortgage agreement by contract.

Choice is law for loans secured by collateral which is property other than real property is pretty much irrelevant in the U.S. This because the law is the same in every U.S. state, territory, or district.

Long Answer

Background regarding recourse and non-recourse loans

To clarify, the terms "recourse" and "non-recourse" are normally used to refer to the remedies available in the event of foreclosure of a loan secured by property that serves as collateral for the loan.

When the collateral is real property, the core documents in the transaction are a promissory note that represents a borrower's promise to reply the funds borrowed from any assets available to the borrower that is not exempt from creditor's claims, and a document representing the fact that the collateral may be seized if the promissory note is not paid as agreed, and that the creditor's interest in that collateral has priority over all third parties seeking to collect their debts out of that property which cannot be erased by transferring the property to someone else. This document is sometimes called a mortgage, and a substantially equivalent document used mostly in the Western U.S. is called a deed of trust. I will call this document a mortgage for simplicity, whatever its true name in your locality.

In the case of a recourse mortgage, if the borrower defaults, the lender can foreclose on the mortgage, which results in a foreclosure sale at which the lender can bid all or part of the debt secured by the collateral together with any additional cash desired, and their parties may make cash bids.

Ignoring for the moment the complications involved when there are multiple mortgages and liens with different priorities encumbering the real property, the person who makes the highest bid at the foreclosure sale is given ownership of the real property in exchange for paying the price bid at the foreclosure sale either in cash (in the case of a third-party bid) or in the from of a reduction in the debt owed, in the case of a lender bidding the debt owed against the property.

If the mortgage is a recourse mortgage, then if the lender bids less than the full amount of the debt owed on the promissory note and is the highest bidder at the foreclosure sale, then the debt owed on the promissory note is reduced by the amount of the bid made by the lender and the remainder of the balance owing on the promissory note is a personal debt owed by the borrower to the lender called a deficiency judgment.

For example, suppose that you buy a house for $1,000,000 with a $200,000 down payment and an $800,0000 recourse mortgage loan. Some time later, the balance owed on the mortgage loan from regular monthly principal and interest payments is $775,000. But, due to a collapse in the real estate market in the real estate market where your house is located, your house, which had a fair market value of $1,000,000 when you bought it, now has a fair market value of $725,000. You lose you job due to the same economic downturn that has caused the market value of your house to decline and are unable to make mortgage payments. The lender forecloses on your house and bids $725,000 at the foreclosure sale, even though you still owe $775,000 on the promissory note. After the foreclosure sale is completely, the lender owns your house, and you still owe the lender a deficiency judgment of $50,000. The lender may now collect the $50,000 deficiency judgment in much the ame way that the lender would collect a judgment entered by a court on an unpaid credit card bill for $50,000. The lender can garnish your wages (once you get some), can seize your bank accounts, and can seize other property which you own which is not protected by a statutory exemption from creditors.

In a recourse mortgage the economic risk of declining property values that wipe out the down payment equity is born by the borrower.

In contrast, if you had a non-recourse mortgage, the lender's sole remedy would be to seize the collateral and the lenders would not be able to obtain a deficiency judgment no matter how little your house was worth. Operationally, this means that the lender is required to bid the full amount of the debt owed by the borrower to the lender at the foreclosure sale, even if the property is worth much less than the amount of the debt owed.

In the case of a non-recourse mortgage the economic risk of declining property values that wipe out the down payment equity is born by the lender.

Choice of Law For Real Property

The place where the documents are signed and the domiciles or place of organization of the parties to the agreement are irrelevant to the question of whether a real property mortgage is recourse or non-recourse.

In the U.S. (and everywhere else that I am aware of), the law governing security interests in real property, such as mortgages and deeds of trust and liens is the law of the place where the real property is located.

So, if you take out a mortgage on property in a non-recourse state, the mortgage will be a non-recourse mortgage.

Usually, in a non-recourse state, it is not possible for a lender and a borrower to mutually agree to make the mortgage a recourse mortgage when the default rule is that mortgages are non-recourse mortgages.

In contrast, if you take out a mortgage on property in a recourse state, the mortgage will be a recourse mortgage, unless the borrower and lender expressly waive the right of the lender to obtain a deficiency judgment in a foreclosure within the mortgage document.

Choice of Law For Other Property

The law governing security interests in property other than real property in the U.S. is usually the Uniform Commercial Code which contains choice of law rules.

While, in theory, different rules that states could adopt regarding whether security interests in property other than real property are recourse or non-recourse, in practice, every U.S. state has adopted the Uniform Commercial Code as a matter of state or territorial or district law, and at the level of generality of whether a security interest (which is the legal name for a mortgage with collateral other than real property under the Uniform Commercial Code) is recourse or non-recourse, the law is uniform throughout the United States, although there might be slight technical differences between the laws of different states or other jurisdictions within the U.S. based upon the version of the Uniform Commercial Code that is on the books or the decision of state legislators to deviate from the uniform statute's language.

The Uniform Commercial Code of each state contains choice of law rules determine which state's version of the Uniform Commercial Code applies to a case. And, the choice of law rules of the Uniform Commercial Code in the state where a lawsuit pertaining to the personal property security interest is what a court in that state applies to resolve the choice of law question. These rules are generally consistent with each other.

Footnote on Macroeconomic Implications Of Recourse v. Nonrecourse Mortgages

The incentives of lenders and borrowers when entering into mortgage loan arrangements is different in recourse and nonrecourse mortgages, particularly, when the decision to give a borrower a loan is made by a third-party mortgage broker subject to bureaucratic conditions, or by a low level bank employee who acts in the same way, rather than by someone with an economic stake the financial well being of the lender.

When mortgage loans are non-recourse, down payments are small, and housing prices are rising, and may be entering a real estate bubble, a borrower is in a "heads I win, tails you lose" situation. If real property values collapse, the borrow loses only his small down payment. If real property values go up, the borrower can sell the property and pocket all of the profits (in some circumstances the profits are even tax free). The borrower has little incentive to worry about the possibility that the fair market value of the real estate could collapse at some point.

But, if the decision to allow the borrower to borrow is made by an employee or broker with nothing to lose if a loan is authorized when it shouldn't have been because the risk that the property values will collapse due to a real estate bubble are too great, the mortgage broker has an incentive to be lax in underwriting the loan to make sure that the borrower can really make the payments and that a foreclosure of the loan will realize enough value to pay of the loan if a real estate price bubble collapses. And, since the bank can get its money back and more by foreclosing if the borrower doesn't make payments while prices are going up, there isn't much of an incentive to make sure that the evidence of the borrower's ability to make the payments on the mortgage is accurate.

The incentive of the broker or employee is usually to get as many mortgages processed as possible, even if that means overlooking problems with paperwork in a loan application, or using an appraiser who will say that the property being financed is worth what is necessary to get the loan approved, even if you know that the appraiser is cutting corners or just making up inaccurate values to get what the broker wants done.

These events can conspire to make a real estate mortgage very bad and to expose the entire community of lenders who make loans in a non-recourse state to catastrophic losses in the event that a real estate bubble collapses.

In contrast, this is much less likely to happen in a recourse mortgage state, where the risk of a downside loss deficiency judgment discourages borrowers from trying to finance the purchase of a house that could easily lose more value than the down payment if it was apparent that a real estate bubble was developing. So borrowers would self-police.

The reason for this extended footnote and story is that this was one of the root causes of the financial crisis. A handful of states with big real estate markets and non-recourse mortgages (California, Florida and Texas mostly) started to experience real estate bubbles and mortgage lenders, because they had bad incentives in their mortgage origination systems didn't do enough to prevent themselves from financing the purchases of overprices houses.

Eventually, the real estate bubble collapsed, lots of borrowers with overpriced houses and little money down defaulted on very large mortgage loans, and the lenders took huge losses on their real estate mortgage portfolios which were supposed to be ultra-low risk but weren't because the people evaluating the real estate mortgage investments overlooked or willfully ignored the risks.

This, in turn, resulted in losses so great at the financial institution level that almost every major investment bank in the country and almost every subprime lender in the country went out of business or went bankrupt, and the collapse of this part of the financial industry, in turn, wrecked havoc on every firm in the economy that relied of these financial institutions as a source of investment or a source of financing for their unrelated businesses. The result was the worst recession since the Great Depression.

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