Strategic Default


 

For most of the 22 million homeowners who owe an average of $40,000 – $65,000 more than their home is worth, the recent $25 billion dollar settlement with the banks will bring no relief. According to Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate’s housing subcommittee, “When you owe more than your house is worth, relief can be hard to come by.”   Among borrowers whose homes have dropped in value through no fault of their own, many choose to simply walk away, which according to Menendez, “Only exacerbates the problem.”

Menendez has introduced a bill that provides an interesting twist on the idea of principal reduction.  The Preserving American Homeownership Act would encourage lenders to write down principal balances by allowing them to share in the home’s appreciation at a later date.  The principal balance would be written down in increments over a three year period to 95% of the current value, so long as the homeowner remains current on their payments.

In exchange for the write-down, the lender would receive a fixed percentage of any future appreciation when the home is either sold or re-financed.  That share could not exceed 50%.  So if a principal balance was reduced by 25%, the bank would receive 25% of any future appreciation.

The Act would apply to primary residences only, but any homeowner could apply.  Borrowers who are in default or even in foreclosure could qualify, but would be required to make their reduced mortgage payment on time in order to remain in the program.

The article in DSNews where I read about the bill did not indicate if the Act would apply to all types of loans or whether or not the modified loans would be re-written at today’s lower interest rates. Presuming so, this Act could provide enough incentive to many underwater homeowners to persuade them to stay in their home versus initiating a strategic default.

As a fan of principal reduction, I like this idea as it seems to be a win-win situation for both homeowners and the banks.  Banks don’t take as big a hit as they would with a short sale or foreclosure, and the write-down is taken over a three year period, AND homeowners get to keep their homes with reduced payments and principal.  Even the opponents of principal reduction might find something to like about this plan!

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Foreclosure in California

Whether you’re facing an involuntary foreclosure or considering a strategic default, here is what you need to know about the process and time line for foreclosure in California.

 

Anyone who knows me would probably say that I’m a fairly optimistic person, but lately it seems as though the real estate market is developing into a vicious cycle with no way to correct itself.   In a report released on Monday, the researchers at Capital Economics said that we could expect nationwide home prices to fall an additional 3% this year, bringing the year’s total decline to about 5%.  So, despite the fact that some markets inSan DiegoCountyhave seen modest gains in home prices over last year, overall, the picture is less than rosy.

So what are the driving forces behind this downward spiral?  Well, the obvious answer is that there are many complicated factors at play, but the cycle we’re seeing is really pretty simple:   Housing prices are falling due to low demand and too much inventory. Normally after a recession, home sales start to pick-up, but that’s not what we’re seeing.  Instead, demand is being strangled by increasingly stringent lending requirements which restrict buying power.  So instead of more buyers coming into the market to take advantage of the low interest rates, we’re seeing fewer that are able to qualify because of high credit score and/or high down payment requirements.   Even existing homeowners looking to sell and buy up or down are caught in a stalemate as most have limited or no equity to leverage against a new property. 

The cycle picks up momentum every time prices drop.  Lower prices, mean less equity for existing homeowners and for those with a mortgage, an increasing number of borrowers are choosing strategic default.  These voluntary defaults are adding to the foreclosure inventory already on the market and the estimated 5 million foreclosed homes lurking in the shadows.  And so the cycle continues; more foreclosures create a bloated inventory.  With an insufficient number of buyers able to buy, sales drop and prices fall, which breeds more foreclosures, and on, and on.

As I’ve noted before, I’m no economist and certainly don’t have all the answers, but there are clearly two actions that could put the brakes on falling prices and encourage increased sales:

  1. Congress should oppose the Quality Residential Mortgage (QRM) requirements being proposed.   The QRM would require an unnecessarily high down payment of 20% and impose a very stringent debt-to-income ratio for conventional loans.  The result would be that more borrowers would seek FHA loans, which in turn would likely raise qualification standards and insurance requirements.  The bottom line result will be fewer qualified buyers and fewer sales.
  2. Banks need to address the issue of negative equity by offering programs that provide principal reductions.  When a borrower feels that he/she is paying on lost equity that they will never recoup they are more likely to choose to default, adding to the inventory glut.

Do you have any ideas about breaking the cycle of falling prices?  I’d love to hear from you!

 

Over the past few years as home values have taken a nose dive, we’ve witnessed a new group of borrowers in the default arena – enter the strategic defaulter.  A strategic default occurs when a borrower who is financially able to make their monthly mortgage payment, chooses to walk away from their property because they owe more than the home is currently worth.  The rationale is that it doesn’t make financial sense to continue to pay for negative equity, waiting and hoping that the home’s value will increase and they will re-coup their lost equity.

To banks that are already struggling to cope with the thousands of borrowers who are legitimately unable to make their mortgage payments, this group represents a growing challenge.  According to studies by the Chicago Booth School of Business, strategic defaults in September 2010 represented 35% of all defaults, up from 26% in March 2009.  Last year the problem became so large that Fannie Mae announced that it would seek stringent penalties against borrowers who are able to pay, but choose to walk away.

Hoping to stem the tide of strategic default, banks are looking for ways to identify those borrowers most likely to walk away from their mortgage obligations.  The problem however, is that to date there has been no reliable way to identify the potential strategic defaulter.  Intervention is impossible if you don’t know who you’re looking for.

FICO Research Labs may have developed the tool banks are lacking.  The credit assessment company announced that it has developed a method that analyzes consumer spending and payment habits and allows lenders to identify borrowers who are 100 times more likely to default than others.  

So what is the profile of the strategic defaulter?  They are actually quite savvy managers of their credit having higher FICO scores, lower balances on revolving debt, less retail credit usage, and fewer instances of exceeding credit limits than the general population.  FICO claims the company’s new analytics can provide loan servicers with a method of reaching two-thirds of these would-be strategic defaulters, and according to Dr. Andrew Jennings, head of FICO Labs, “The ability to spot likely strategic defaulters before delinquency enables servicers to intervene early.”

But then what?  It is one thing to identify borrowers who might choose strategic default, but, what intervention can banks offer that will actually deter would-be defaulters? If lenders follow Fannie Mae’s example and simply threaten legal action to recoup outstanding mortgage debts, I doubt that will be much of a deterrent or solve any of the real problems.

The issue comes back to a point I’ve often made in this blog:  I don’t believe we are going to see a significant reduction in defaults, both strategic and involuntary until lenders are ready to consider meaningful principal reductions for borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth.   If Savvy Bob the Homeowner is considering default because he owes $80,000 more than the home is worth, do you think he might consider staying in his home if his principal balance was reduced by $60,000?  Throw-in a lower interest rate and I’m pretty sure you’d have a deal.  Considering the bottom line expenses for banks to foreclose, costs for carrying an REO, lost revenue, and a lower net sales price, principal reduction should start to look pretty good.

So I’m all for identifying those who are likely to choose to walk away, but before banks rush to hit them over the head with penalties, l hope they’ll put some thought into resolving the equity issues that are driving strategic default and offer borrowers a meaningful alternative.