During a town hall meeting last Thursday inWashington,D.C. the President took a comment from a woman in the audience who explained that her loan modification expires in January, 2012.   Despite having excellent credit, she can’t refinance because she owes more than the house is worth.  Without a new loan mod, or principal reduction she will not be able to make her payments and could lose her home.

The President agreed that the banks need to take a more aggressive role in protecting homeowners.  He commented to the banks, “We were there for you when you got in trouble, then you’ve got to be there for the American people when they’re having a tough time.”  (I think he just forgot to add the part about the banks creating this problem in the first place.)

“We want to see if we can get longer-term loan modifications. And in some cases, principle reduction, which will be good for the person who owns the home, but it’ll also be good for the banks over the long term,” President Obama said.  “You know what,” Obama continued, “speaking to the banks…you’re going to be better off if somebody’s still paying on their mortgage than if they get foreclosed on and you end up not only having to go through all those legal processes, but you also end up…selling the home at a fire sale price.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that stating the obvious?  Is there anything new here?  Under the current government Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), borrowers may receive a modification that is valid for 5 years, and under some non-HAMP programs the modification period is as short as 2 years.  But then what?  Like the woman in the town hall meeting who was fortunate enough to even get a loan mod, what happens when it expires? 

President Obama concluded by adding that his administration is working with banks to expand loan modifications.  “We’re going to be talking to the banks. And I mean, on a regular basis,” he said.

Well, I bet that has the banks shaking in their boots!  “Talking on a regular basis”, what does that mean and how is that going to change anything?  If we are ever going to see an end to the real estate depression that continues to drag down our economy we need an effective plan, not lip-service.  Someone needs to lean on the banks to make permanent, meaningful modifications that include (as I’ve been saying for over a year), principal reduction.  Come on Mr. President….you’ve shown you’ve got the muscle.  Let’s see some action!

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May got off to an interesting start with the release of several foreclosure reports that frankly, seem a bit contradictory.  There was good news.  There was bad news.  And I’m not quite sure analysts have a handle on what it all really means to the housing market.

Let’s start with the good news:  Mortgage delinquencies are down.  According to data from Lender Processing Services (LPS), delinquencies are down by 20% compared to this time last year.  At the end of March there were 6,333,040 loans nationwide that were past due or in foreclosure.  Sounds like a lot, but that is the lowest level since 2008.  The report would seem to indicate that modifications are helping as 23% of loans that were 90 days past due a year ago are current today.

Now here is where it gets confusing.  The same report showed that at the end of March foreclosure inventory was at an all time high – 2.2 million loans.  This inventory represents loans that have been referred to a foreclosure attorney but have not yet reached foreclosure sale.  The number of new foreclosure actions was 270,681 in March which is a 33% increase over the previous month.  So foreclosures are up but delinquencies are down?

Another piece of bad news was delivered in a HUD report detailing sales of FHA foreclosed homes.  HUD manages the disposition of homes that had FHA loans that were repossessed.  At the end of February there were 68,801 homes in the HUD inventory.  That is a 50% increase over the previous year.  The monthly sale of HUD homes has dropped from ahigh pointof 8,893 last June to a low of just 2,632 in January.  Thus new foreclosures are entering the market at an increased rate while sales have significantly stalled.

One factor not considered in the LPS report was the increase in the number of short sales over the last year.  In addition to loan modifications, which have not been very effective, short sales are presumably impacting the decreased delinquency rate as more homeowners are opting to sell short earlier in the delinquency cycle versus riding out the foreclosure timeline.    If you are a homeowner that owes more than your home is worth and are struggling to make your payments, the bright spot on the horizon might just be a short sale should a loan modification not provide the relief you need.

For the real estate industry overall, this jumble of numbers would seem to indicate that we’re still a long way from recovery.  With foreclosures increasing and sales decreasing, a bloated inventory of homes on the market will likely keep prices fairly stagnant in most markets.

A survey released on Monday shows that nationally, nearly half of all home sales in March involved distressed properties; either foreclosed homes or short sales.  This is the second highest level seen in the past 12 months.   And while this might not seem like good news, the statistics actually provide a glimmer of hope. 

The Housing Pulse Tracking Survey reported that short sales rose from 17.0% of total sales in February to 19.6% in March, and at the same time REO sales fell from 14.9% to 12.0%.  this is an all-time high for short sales.

So why is this a good thing?   Short sales, though not as speedy as we would like, are resolved much more quickly than foreclosures.  An REO can sit empty on the market for months, often falling into disrepair.  REOs are used as comparables by appraisers and thus drag down neighborhood property values.  Smaller numbers of REOs would be a positive sign for improved home values in the months ahead.

Additionally, from the point of view of an individual, a short sale is usually preferable in terms of both short and long-term impact.    A few of the advantages include the fact that a short sale does not have near the negative impact on a borrower’s credit score as a foreclosure;  there is no set time limit that disallows a borrower from buying again, and a short sale is not reported on a credit report for 7 years, as is a foreclosure.

If you have any questions about short sales, or any other real estate questions, please don’t hesitate to give me a call at 619-846-9249.

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.

Believe it or not, a Republican and a Democrat are working together!  The two Representatives are sponsors of a bill that would require lenders to provide a decision of approval or disapproval of a short sale within 45 days of submission of the file.  Hallelujah! 

For those of us in the short-sale trenches, the most painful part of the process is the long period we spend waiting for the bank’s decision.  We meticulously prepare the file and then fax it off into a nameless abyss where it seemingly lies hidden at the bottom of someone’s in box.  Weeks later, we are informed that half of the information we submitted is missing from the file and would we please re-send it, or what we sent is now outdated (because they took so long to review it), and would we please send new pay stubs and bank statements.  It is a vicious process that can make a normally calm Realtor want to jump through the phone and strangle someone.

So yes, a decision in 45 days would be a Godsend!  The Bill is sponsored by Reps Tom Rooney (R- Florida), and Robert Andrews (D-New Jersey), who believe that by imposing a deadline on lenders, more short sales would be successfully executed and fewer homes go to foreclosure.   Although a few banks such as Bank of America have made an effort to improve their processing systems by utilizing a technology platform such as Equator, most banks rely on outdated systems and under trained personnel, ill-equipped to handle the thousands of short sales landing on their desks.  Thus in the current market, many short sale transactions fall-apart because the buyer gets tired of waiting and simply moves on, often leaving the homeowner to face foreclosure.

The Prompt Decision for Short Sale Act of 2011 is currently waiting to be referred to a Committee.  A similar act with the same name was introduced last September, but never came up for debate before the legislative session ended…let’s hope the support of the National Association of Realtors will help prevent this bill from a similar demise.

At the end of the day however, even if we have a shortened time period for decisions, any short sale is only as strong as the negotiator acting on behalf of the homeowner.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me for more information on how to improve your chances for a successful transaction.

As a result of the foreclosure robo-signing mess uncovered last September, loan servicers are facing new federal and state requirements outlined in a draft settlement proposal last week.  Here are the highlights that could provide greater protection for homeowners:

  • Servicers would agree to stop dual tracking.   Hard to believe, but currently many companies will pursue foreclosure, even while the borrower is trying to get a loan modification.    This new requirement would mean that foreclosure processing would be put on hold during the loan modification process.
  • Servicers would be required to review any loan modification that is denied.  They would also have to implement a system whereby the borrower would have 10 days to appeal a modification denial.
  • Most significant is the provision that would require servicers to “implement processes reasonably designed to ensure that factual assertions made in pleadings, declarations, affidavits, or other sworn statements filed by or on behalf of the servicer are accurate and complete.”  This would help alleviate the problem of minimum wage processors signing-off on foreclosures.
  • The proposal also states that servicers may not develop compensation programs for employees that encourage foreclosure over modification or other options.   And yes, that was in place at some institutions.
  • And lastly, servicers would be required to offer one point of contact to borrowers trying to complete a loan modification, short sale or forbearance agreement.   Finally!  This alone should improve the process, or at least lessen the frustration level of speaking with a different person every time the borrower calls.

Do I think this will improve loss mitigation for borrowers?  Let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic.  At the end of the day of course, any regulation is only as good as the enforcement that backs it.

Over the past two years we’ve all become somewhat numbed by the landslide of bad news about foreclosures and the declining value of our homes.  And if you’re in the real estate business, you’ve eagerly watched for the monthly sales statistics, anxious for a glimmer of hope. But beyond the news articles and charts of numbers are the real stories of individuals and families and lives forever changed.

No one buys a home with the idea that they might lose it one day.  We all buy a house with a vision of it being the place we call home until we move-up, downsize, or for one reason or another, decide to move.  And because it is ours, we put a lot of love (and money) into making it reflect our tastes and lifestyles.  We paint, we plant, we remodel – we make it distinctly ours.

When threatened with foreclosure, there are a lot of emotions, depending on the situation; anger, fear of the future, sadness and a sense of loss are a few.  But the overwhelming feeling that people express to me is a sense of helplessness.  Losing their home is usually not their decision and they often feel powerless to control the direction of their lives.

For many, a short sale offers an opportunity to put a positive spin on what is otherwise a negative situation.  Instead of losing your home, you are making a conscious decision to sell it – you are in control of the situation.  You are choosing to sell and salvage your credit rating; you are choosing to rebuild your financial picture; you are choosing to close one chapter, put the hurt behind you, and move forward with your life.

Facing a financial loss such as losing your home to foreclosure can be devastating.  A short sale may have benefits that go well beyond your credit report by helping you start that new chapter on a positive note.  Please feel free to call or email with any questions.