Mortgage-Skipping Masters: Couple Lives in $1.29 Million Home Without Making Payments for 5 Years

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Guess what happens when you stop paying the mortgage? For quite some time, the answer is: Nothing much. In many states, while the foreclosure process drags on for years, homeowners who have stopped paying their bills can live in the property in a situation that amounts to “free rent,” as it’s been called. One couple in Maryland may be the masters of this approach: For five years, they’ve lived in a five-bedroom, 4,900-square-foot home originally purchased for $1.29 million, and they’ve never paid a single mortgage payment on the property.

Over the weekend, the Washington Post broke the story of Keith and Janet Ritter, who have managed to live for five years in a mansion overlooking the Potomac River in Fort Washington, Maryland, a ritzy suburb of Washington, D.C., without paying the mortgage, and without being kicked out. How is this possible?

Part of the explanation is that the home is located in Maryland. According to a Bloomberg story, 24 states are known as “judicial states,” where courts must approve before delinquent homeowners are foreclosed upon. All the paperwork makes the process occur slowly—and over the last few years, as the number of delinquencies and foreclosures has soared, the process has taken place at an especially snail-like pace.

(MORE: How You Can Fix the Housing Crisis — At Least in Your Own Home)

Maryland, as you might guess, is just such a “judicial state.” Neighboring Virginia, on the other hand, is not. The WP notes the dramatic time difference for foreclosures in the two otherwise similar states:

It now takes on average 634 days to complete a foreclosure in Maryland, compared with 132 days in Virginia.

During the pre-recession housing boom, the Ritters became mini real estate moguls. Janet is a real estate agent, and Keith—who was previously sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud related to older real estate dealings—pulled in a six-figure income by investing in properties and collecting rent as a landlord. Five years ago, they purchased their $1.29 million home with almost no money down. Soon thereafter, the market collapsed, and the Ritters wound up facing multiple foreclosures, while never making a single mortgage payment on their own residence.

(MORE: Underwater: Will the Foreclosure Agreement Fix the Depressed Housing Market?)

They have tried to negotiate payment arrangements with their lender, and have repeatedly filed for bankruptcy. While Keith told the WP that “we don’t believe in living for free,” the Ritters have attacked their situation strategically, using every tactic possible to stall and challenge foreclosure proceedings. Acting otherwise would be foolish, the Ritters explain:

“When a bank does all it can to save itself, that’s good business,” Keith said. “When a homeowner does the same thing, he’s called a deadbeat.”

Concepts such as “free rent” and “strategic default,” along with the debate about whether failure to pay one’s mortgage is an ethical issue or merely a business one never fail to get American homeowners riled up. At last check, the WP story had surpassed the 1,100-comment mark. Most of the discussion revolved around which parties are more to blame for the foreclosure mess: homeowners, banks, or the government.

(MORE: Struggling to Stay Afloat: Number of Underwater Homeowners Keeps Rising)

Many homeowners and former homeowners—those who pay their mortgages and those who don’t, those who have been foreclosed upon and those who haven’t—can legitimately claim that they are being treated unfairly. Adding to the controversy: Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that owners who are delinquent in ritzy homes manage to avoid foreclosure longer, on average, than owners with smaller, basic homes. Borrowers in default with mortgages worth $1 million or more (like the Ritters) have been able to stay in their homes for six months longer than those who have defaulted on loans worth less than $250,000.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.