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New federal rules could speed up short-sale process

Homeowners can expect a response from their bank on a short-sale offer within 30 business days, with a final decision taking no more than 60 days, if their loan is owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

April 29, 2012|By Kenneth R. Harney

WASHINGTON — If you're one of the estimated 11 million homeowners burdened with an underwater mortgage, a new federal policy change could be good news: Starting in June, when you want to do a short sale to shed your mortgage and avoid foreclosure, you may not have to wait for months to hear back from your bank when you submit an offer from a potential purchaser.

Instead, if your loan is owned or securitized by either of the dominant conventional mortgage market players — Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac — you can expect a response within 30 business days, with a final decision taking no more than 60 days. If you don't hear back during the first 30 days, the bank will be required to send you weekly updates telling you precisely where the holdups are and when they are likely to be resolved. None of this is typical of short-sale procedures today. Banks and loan servicers that don't comply will face monetary and other penalties.

The mandatory timelines, which real estate and mortgage industry experts say should help speed up what traditionally has been a glacial process, are being imposed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulatory overseer of Fannie and Freddie in conservatorship. Short sales, in which the lender or loan servicer agrees to accept less than the full amount owed by the borrower, represent an important alternative to foreclosure.

Although short sales can be complex and messy, and can take anywhere from several months to more than a year to complete, they are turning into a mainstay of the real estate market. According to a report from the foreclosure data firm RealtyTrac, short sales jumped 33% in January compared with the same month the year before. In 12 states — including California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New York and New Jersey — there were more short sales recorded during January than sales of foreclosed properties.

This trend is welcome, regulators say, but the time required to complete short sales is still far too long. The 30-day and 60-day mandates address just one of the key points of delay in the process, but regulators promise a series of additional steps during the coming months designed to speed transactions. They include clearer guidelines on borrower eligibility, property valuations, compensation for lenders holding second liens and mortgage insurance issues. All of these are points of friction that can delay short sales for weeks or months.

Realty agents who specialize in short sales say setting mandatory timelines is a step in the right direction but won't solve all the problems. The new rules and promises of more "are great if they really happen," said broker Erik Berry of Erik Berry & Associates in Sacramento. Short sales that his firm handles take an average of "about six months" from start to finish on Fannie-Freddie loans. But FHA transactions, which will not be affected by the new regulations, average much longer, and sometimes drag on for a year.

Berry also is skeptical that banks and servicers will be able to reform their staffing practices quickly enough to meet the compressed timelines — even if penalties are imposed. In some cases, he said, banks switch personnel and negotiators five or six times over the course of a short sale.

"You're dealing with one person one day and they say, 'Don't worry, everything's fine,' then suddenly they're gone and you never hear from them again," Berry said, leaving the deal stalled for weeks.

Matt Battiata, whose Battiata Real Estate Group in Del Mar, Calif., handles hundreds of short sales a year, said a reliable, 60-day decision deadline for responses to offers will be helpful — 30 days better than the 90-day average he now sees from banks — but the whole process will still take longer than traditional sales. For clients seeking to do short sales today, Battiata estimates five to six months from offer to closing.

Some of the complications inherent in short sales are beyond the control of regulators or banks, he pointed out. For instance, buyers put in offers to purchase but then change their minds, forcing the sellers and brokers to come up with replacement offers and the bank to reset the clock to analyze the new package.

The take-away for potential short sellers: Be aware of the new moves afoot to streamline the process, but don't expect miracles.

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.

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