More than a third (36%) of Americans believe it is acceptable for homeowners to deliberately stop paying their mortgages and surrender their homes to their mortgage lender, at least under certain circumstances, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

A majority (59%) still believe it is unacceptable, according to the survey of 2,967 adults.

As the housing market continues to wane in many parts of the country, more than one-in-five homeowners (21%) say they owe more on their mortgages than their home is worth, the survey finds. Some homeowners in this situation stop making their mortgage payments and let the bank foreclose on their homes.

In August alone, lending institutions foreclosed on an estimated 95,400 properties, according to data compiled by RealtyTrac Inc., see story. It was the second-highest monthly total since the firm began tracking foreclosures in April 2005. Not surprisingly, how people fared financially during the recession is linked to their views on walking away from a mortgage.

Nearly half (48%) of all homeowners say the value of their home declined during the recession, and as a group they are more likely than those whose home did not lose value to say it's acceptable to walk away from a mortgage (20% vs. 14%).

Renters are even more likely to say it's okay to stop making house payments: Fully a quarter (25%) say it is acceptable to walk away.

Those who have had financial problems during the recession are more likely than others to say that walking away from a mortgage is acceptable.

Nearly one-in-four adults (24%) who say their families are just able to pay their monthly bills or can't meet expenses say it's okay to stop paying a mortgage, compared with 14% of those who say they "live comfortably."

But homeowners who say their homes are worth less than what they owe are not more tolerant of the practice than those who would break even or make money on a sale (18% vs.17%). 

As the housing market collapsed and the recession took hold, sinking home values have left many homeowners owing more on their mortgages than they could collect if they sold their property.

According to the survey, about one-in-five mortgage-holders (21%) are currently "under water." Lower-income homeowners are more likely than upper-income homeowners to face this problem (33% for those with family incomes of less than $30,000 vs. 15% for those earning $75,000 or more). Middle-aged homeowners are more likely than either younger or older homeowners to be in this situation. 

Caught between big mortgages, sinking home values and the financial strains associated with periods of high unemployment, many homeowners have stopped making mortgage payments. The practice has grown so common that the mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae, reeling from mounting losses, is now suing so-called "strategic defaulters" -- those who can afford a mortgage but bail anyway.

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