Reporting from Washington — If you give millions of seriously underwater homeowners a new equity position in their properties by reducing their principal mortgage debt, will they keep paying on their loans and avoid foreclosure?
Call it a pipe dream or a significant model for other lenders and investors, but one company says it has found an important combination: Modify underwater borrowers' loans so that their payments are reduced to a manageable amount and cut their principal debt over time, but make the deal dependent on their scrupulous on-time monthly payments of the new amount plus sharing of a portion of any future profit they make on the house sale.
In practice, the plan works like this: Say you've been underwater on your loan. You can't handle the payments and you're heading down the conveyor belt to near-inevitable default and foreclosure. Now the company servicing your mortgage makes you this multipart offer: First we will reduce your loan balance to a level where you will have 5% positive equity in the house. That is, rather than the original amount that has you drowning, we will set your debt at 5% below the appraised value of the house.
Next we'll modify the mortgage so your monthly payments reflect the reduced underlying principal balance. Then, in annual increments over the next three years, we will write off the amounts of the original debt balance that we reduced. In exchange, we will expect that you do two things: Stay current on your loan payments, and agree to let us share 25% of any future gain you make on the house at resale.
That's the deal Ocwen Financial Corp., one of the largest servicers of distressed home mortgages in the country, began offering more than 3,000 underwater borrowers in a test that began a year ago. The results to date: 79% of the customers offered the program in the test signed up, and the re-default rate has been just 2.6% — far below the 40% to 50% rates within similar time periods seen in some federally sponsored loan modification efforts.
Ocwen, which services 460,000 loans and is acquiring a portfolio of 250,000 more next month from Goldman Sachs' Litton Loan Servicing unit, said the test was so promising that it's now taking the program national. It already has regulatory green lights in 33 states, including California, and expects more to give approval in the months ahead.
Ocwen Chief Executive Ron Faris says the key to the program is that the shared appreciation approach allows for a restoration of equity for borrowers, which is "psychologically important" and greatly affects their motivation to keep current on the modified payment terms. It gives them a stake again and gives them some hope.
"Our analytics tell us that an underwater loan is one and a half to two times more likely to re-default than one with at least some positive equity," he said.
The shared appreciation and principal reduction concept also works for the bond investors who actually own the mortgages, Faris said. The loans keep performing — unlike many other modification plans — and there's the possibility of a little sweetener at the end in the form of a portion of any appreciation that occurs beyond the revised appraised value on the house.
Paul Koches, Ocwen executive vice president and general counsel, says there is no set cutoff level of negative equity beyond which the program cannot go. So even if your current loan-to-value ratio is 150% — which puts you deeply underwater — the program may include you.
There's a key limitation, of course: Only Ocwen-serviced borrowers who are both underwater and unable to handle current loan payments are eligible. Since roughly 11 million owners are underwater on their loans, according to industry data, and 2 million of them are in financial distress and projected to go to foreclosure, Ocwen's program can only touch a modest fraction at best.
Some large lenders and servicers such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo have initiated principal reduction efforts for some underwater customers, but none to date has announced a shared appreciation feature.
Ocwen's program is drawing praise from consumer advocates active in foreclosure prevention. John Taylor, president and chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said in a statement that "we hope this innovative effort inspires other mortgage servicers to follow suit."
Is this the long-awaited solution to the housing crisis? Not likely. But if major banks and servicers come out with their own versions — and better yet, the Obama administration tells servicers to include the idea in their tool kits — then the effect could be much more powerful.
Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.