If I’ve sounded a bit like a broken record over the last 10 months, it’s because I strongly believe that principal reductions are an import key to ending the housing crisis.  People who are struggling to make payments on an upside down mortgage are more likely to avoid default if they are paying on a mortgage based on 2011 home values.  Fewer defaults mean more stable values and ultimately an end to the real estate crash.  And apparently some of the banks now agree.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bank of America is finally bringing principal reduction modifications to the bargaining table.  For months now, B of A and the nation’s other four largest servicers have been in discussion with state and federal officials in an attempt to settle charges of inappropriate activities in connection with foreclosure proceedings.  Investigations last September revealed that several servicers used illegal affidavits and faulty paperwork in their foreclosure practices, and the banks are now hoping to settle and avoid any further liability.

The state attorneys general have pushed for principal reduction as part of the settlement, but until recently the banks have refused.  The private negotiations have been going on for months, and the June 15th target for resolution has come and gone.  As a means of kicking the discussion into high gear, B of A has now offered principal reductions as a bargaining chip, and the other banks are expected to follow.

Of course, Bank of America is not offering principal reductions because they actually care about keeping people in their homes, but rather because they hope to make the problems caused by sloppy and illegal foreclosure practices go away.  But in any case, the end result could be the answer to the prayers of many homeowners facing default.

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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.

Once again, Santa forgot to bring me a crystal ball.  So this look into the future of the housing market is based on trends from the past year, projections from those that crunch the numbers, and my gut feelings based on life in the real estate trenches.

Foreclosures continued to be the top story in 2010 with robo-signing and questionable practices making headlines.  In 2011 so-called shadow inventory will be making news as it grows and clogs the pipeline.  This includes borrowers that are 90 days or more delinquent, homes in foreclosure, and bank-owned properties not yet on the market.  S & P estimates that it will take 41 months to clear the backlog, continuing to slow the recovery.

Short sales will increase as the government and lenders try to stem the deluge of foreclosures that add to the shadow inventory.   Right now about 35% of defaults end in a cure or short sale.  I see that number growing as banks and the government iron out the problems with HAFA (Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives), and the processing of short sales is streamlined.

Loan modifications will continue to be largely unsuccessful.   There is some hope for small improvement in the numbers if the FHA principal reduction program can be expanded.

Mortgage interest rates jumped this last month, but are gradually heading down.   Frank Nothaft, chief economist for Freddie Mac foresees rates staying below 5.00% throughout the year.  Let’s hope he’s right.

Home sales will increase, especially for first-time buyers, provided interest rates remain low and the economy continues to improve.  If unemployment continues to decrease and incomes increase we should see an increase in home sales over 2010 by the 2nd half of the New Year.

Home values throughout most of the country will reach the bottom by mid-year and many areas, such as San Diego County will see modest gains of 2.00 – 4.00%.  The exception continues to be the luxury home market where home prices in locations such as La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe will continue to decline.

My advice?  If you own a home and are not terribly upside-down, hang tight.  Looking to buy?  Do it now!  This is a great time to purchase your first home or pick-up an investment property.  Struggling with your payments?  Let’s explore your options, before it’s too late.  Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Many homeowners who are facing foreclosure are turning to attorneys to help them save their homes, especially in light of the recent revelations regarding mishandled paperwork.  With few other options available, the struggling homeowners hope that an attorney will find a flaw or legal loophole that will cause the foreclosure to be dismissed.  The problem is that most of these homeowners have no way to pay the legal fees.

But one enterprising law firm in Florida came up with a solution:  If they manage to get a foreclosure dismissed, the firm takes out a second mortgage on the property to pay the legal fees!  The Ticktin Law Group in Deerfield Beach reasoned that this was a way they could find an affordable way to represent homeowners.  Other firms are now following their example with similar second mortgage programs.

OK, call me crazy, but how does this make sense?  A homeowner that presumably owes more than the house is worth and has a first mortgage they already can’t afford, now takes on additional debt in the form a second mortgage?  The lawyers point out that they are charging low interest, around 4.0%, and insist that they would never foreclose.  So, the home is saved, for the moment, but how is this a sustainable solution? Sorry, but this defies logic and seems downright predatory.  I’ll be stunned if these poor homeowners aren’t back in foreclosure a year from now.