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Short sales grow as a cheaper alternative to foreclosure

Banks' resistance to the tricky transactions is softening as the number of distressed properties increases.

February 17, 2010|By Alejandro Lazo
  • Stephanie and Bob Walker chronicled their home's short sale in a popular blog called Love in the Time of Foreclosure.
Stephanie and Bob Walker chronicled their home's short sale in a popular… (Stephanie and Bob Walker )

Nineteen months ago, the recession took Bob Walker's job. Then, creditors lined up to take the three-bedroom hilltop home that the computer consultant shared with his wife, Stephanie, a playwright still looking for her first break.

Avoiding the stigma and financial fallout of foreclosure became an obsession for the Walkers. They talked to the banks, found multiple jobs, put their Silver Lake house on the market and tried to stitch together a plan to repay their debts. Finally, they turned to a short sale, chronicled in a popular blog: Love in the Time of Foreclosure.

"We really thought that, worst-case scenario, we will sell the house and break even," Stephanie Walker said. "But it didn't work. We went into great losses."

In a short sale the lender lets a homeowner unload a house for less than what is owed on the mortgage. The transaction recognizes that the home isn't worth what the owner paid for it after more than two years of falling real estate values.

Such deals are appealing to struggling homeowners because they escape weighty house debts -- but they don't get away unscathed. Their credit scores will be damaged, perhaps less severely than in foreclosure, but still badly enough to limit for years their ability to borrow money. There may be tax consequences. And any money invested through down payments and renovations will be lost.

Lenders, which can withhold approval of a short sale if they don't like the price, have resisted such sales because they are difficult to execute, particularly when multiple creditors and other parties are involved. And short sales lock in losses that might be reduced if the sale is delayed until the market improves.

But that resistance is softening. With more Americans losing jobs and missing mortgage payments, banks and investors increasingly are agreeing to short sales as a less costly alternative to foreclosure.

Short sales approved by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own 57% of U.S. mortgages, nearly quadrupled in the first nine months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. At the nation's largest mortgage servicers, short sales soared 165% to 74,513 in the first nine months of 2009 from the year-earlier period.

Short sales are still few compared with foreclosures, but policymakers are looking at such sales to shrink the number of bank-owned homes on the market.

Late last year, the Obama administration added incentives to get short sales done if a borrower is unable to qualify for a modified mortgage as part of the government's $75-billion effort to help troubled homeowners. Starting in April, the government will pay incentives to lenders and borrowers when a sale is completed.

Many economists view short sales as a way to address a problem that mortgage relief hasn't fixed: properties that are "under water," carrying more debt than the home is worth.

"Making short sales easier would go a long way to freeing up the market," said Richard Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate. "Right now, if people are under water on their house, they are really stuck."

Short sales remain difficult. Uncertainty over home prices makes properties hard to value, lenders are understaffed and multiple loans on a home can trip up negotiations among creditors.

The Walkers faced some of these challenges. The couple paid $799,000 for their home in 2006, taking out loans from Countrywide Financial Corp. and National City Corp.

They spent most of their savings and ran up big credit card balances to redo their kitchen and landscaping. Even with her husband's $240,000 yearly salary, they were stretched thin making combined mortgage payments of $5,000 a month, Stephanie Walker said.

When Bob Walker's consulting contract was canceled, the couple fell behind on their house payments. They found jobs but their income suffered.

They listed the home for $875,000 but found no buyers. A foreclosure notice arrived. They were offered a three-month payment reduction from Bank of America but couldn't afford it. A short sale looked attractive.

One factor motivating banks to go along with short sales is that foreclosures typically cost more. Foreclosed properties often sit vacant, susceptible to damage from neglect or vandals. A study by Amherst Securities Group found that prime loans took an average loss of 45% in a foreclosure as opposed to 35% in a short sale.

"The bank or the investor is going to lose money on a short sale or a foreclosure," said J.K. Huey, senior vice president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. "You don't lose as much if you sell the property when it is occupied."

Representatives of Wells Fargo & Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. said their companies had assigned more employees to handle short sales. But the sheer volume of requests has made it difficult to keep up.

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