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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It was just announced that the Obama Administration is making some significant changes to the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). I noted 3 key points:

1. Homeowners who are struggling financially will be eligible for a 2nd evaluation with a less stringent debt-to-income ratio.
2. The program will be extended to include investor owned properties that are used as rentals.

And ….(drum roll)…

3. The  Administration will triple incentives for lenders who write down principal balances for underwater homeowners, AND they are extending this principal reduction incentive to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac!

It’s this last item that has me excited as I’ve been a proponent of principal reduction for a long time, as noted in my blog post back in 2010. What impact all of this will have of course depends on how quickly the new rules can be put into effect and how well all participating lenders adhere to the new guidelines.

All that being said, I’ll take any good loan modification news that we can get!

What is a Loan Modification?

Watch this short video to learn the truth about mortgage loan modifications.

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I’m no Economics genius. So I was pleasantly surprised to read the October 12th NY Times article by Martin S Feldstein, a Harvard professor of Economics and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. It appears that Professor Feldstein and I agree that the only way to stop the drop in home values is by principal reduction.

The professor points out that for most Americans, their homes are their primary source of wealth. Since the housing bubble burst in 2006, Americans have lost $9 trillion or 40% of their wealth. This sharp decline in wealth means less consumer spending, fewer jobs and a stalled economic recovery.

Today, nearly 15 million homeowners owe more than their homes are worth and of this group about half of the mortgages exceed the value by more than 30%. The professor maintains that housing prices continue to fall because millions of homeowners are defaulting on their mortgages and the sale of the foreclosed properties drive down prices. Because most mortgages are non recourse loans, underwater borrowers have a strong incentive to simply walk away.

Professor Feldstein suggests that instead of throwing tax dollars at ineffective programs aimed at reducing interest rates, the government should address the real problem which is that the amount of the mortgage debt exceeds the value of the home.

Here is a summary of his idea: The government would reduce mortgage principal to 110% of the home value. The cost for doing this would be split between the government and the banks. This would help about 11 million of the 15 million underwater homes at a cost of under $350 billion. Considering the millions of mortgages held by Fannie and Freddie, the government would in essence be paying itself.

This would of course be a voluntary program. In exchange for the principal write-down, the borrower would agree that the new mortgage was a full recourse loan and the government could go after other assets if he defaulted on the loan.

I think it sounds fair, as everyone makes a sacrifice and we put the brakes on strategic default. It is a huge one-time cost, but continuing to allow housing prices to fall could risk another, even more costly recession. And speaking for my short sale clients, I know that most would have gladly signed up for a principal reduction if it meant saving their home.

What do you think?

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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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!

 

First steps are often small and hesitant, but generally precede a more confident stride.  We can hope so.  Apparently U.S.households took a baby step out of financial distress during the first quarter of this year, according to the numbers released yesterday by CredAbility.  The non-profit counseling agency said its Consumer Distress Index hit its highest score in two and a half years, indicating that household financial distress is beginning to ease.

The index measures financial distress in five categories:  employment, housing, credit, household budgets, and net worth.  Average American households are queried and scored on a 100 point scale – the higher the score, the lower the level of financial woes with a score below 70 indicating financial distress.  So a score of 68.15 doesn’t sound like a lot to cheer about, but that is up from a score of 67.2 in the last quarter of 2010.

“I believe a new trend is emerging,” said Mark Cole,COOof the Atlanta-based counseling organization. “Our index has increased by four points in the last five quarters, an indication that the averageU.S.household is getting financially healthier [and] that the majority of consumers are on the right track.”

The positive direction of the index is credited to increased employment rates, but it was no surprise to me that the category dragging down the overall score continues to be housing.  The housing score in fact dropped in the first quarter of this year, indicating that mortgage delinquencies are still a major problem for American households.

So pay attention banks;  if you want us all out there spending money and using credit you’ve got to cut loose the ball and chain holding back our baby steps.  The quicker you cut your mortgage losses, the sooner we’ll all reap the rewards of moving up and out of the distress zone.  Principal reduction, anyone?