The Housing Chronicles Blog: Home equity lenders preventing short sales and refinancing?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Home equity lenders preventing short sales and refinancing?

Looking for another reason why a government bailout is becoming closer to a sure thing?

Because we live in a country in which self interest is not only encouraged, but often forced upon companies which must answer to shareholders, investors and Wall Street. And few sectors of the economy demonstrate this self-interest more than mortgage lenders, which is why calls by John McCain for voluntary compliance by lenders for workouts in the name of "helping your country" not only reveals his economic ignorance, but makes me wonder if he, like Rip Van Winkle, has been asleep for the last 30 years. Whatever national values he might have fought for when he was captured and tortured in a POW camp for 5 years seems to be long gone (one thinks he might have seen the writing on that wall when he ran against Karl Rove's version of politics in 1999). Sorry, John. I think it's a shame, too.

It seems that providers of home equity lines/loans -- who are generally in a second-tier position behind first mortgage loans -- are now protecting their investments (at least whatever shows up on their balance sheets if not in reality) -- by not agreeing to short sales in which they get short-changed and preventing homeowners from refinancing unless they pay down their equity balances. I'd say that this almost forces the government to step in because for all of their economic 'expertise,' the Bush Administration doesn't seem to have noticed that self-interest can also turn around the bite the hands that feed them. From a New York Times story:

Americans owe a staggering $1.1 trillion on home equity loans — and banks are increasingly worried they may not get some of that money back.

To get it, many lenders are taking the extraordinary step of preventing some people from selling their homes or refinancing their mortgages unless they pay off all or part of their home equity loans first. In the past, when home prices were not falling, lenders did not resort to these measures.

Such tactics are impeding efforts by policy makers to help struggling homeowners get easier terms on their mortgages and stem the rising tide of foreclosures. But at a time when each day seems to bring more bad news for the financial industry, lenders defend the hard-nosed maneuvers as a way to keep their own losses from deepening...

While homeownership climbed to record heights in recent years, home equity — the value of the properties minus the mortgages against them — has fallen below 50 percent for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve.

Lenders holding first mortgages get first dibs on borrowers’ cash or on the homes should people fall behind on their payments. Banks that made home equity loans are second in line. This arrangement sometimes pits one lender against another.

When borrowers default on their mortgages, lenders foreclose and sell the homes to recoup their money. But when homes sell for less than the value of their mortgages and home equity loans — a situation known as a short sale — lenders with first liens must be compensated fully before holders of second or third liens get a dime.

In places like California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida, where home prices have fallen significantly, second-lien holders can be left with little or nothing once first mortgages are paid...

Lenders and investors who hold home equity loans are not giving up easily, however. Instead, they are opposing short sales. And some banks holding second liens are also opposing refinancings for first mortgages, a little-used power they have under the law, in an effort to force borrowers to pay down their loans...

Disagreements arise when the first and second liens are held by different banks or investors. If one lender holds both debts, it is in their interest to find a solution.

When deals cannot be worked out, second-lien holders can pursue the outstanding balance even after foreclosure, sometimes through collection agencies. The soured home equity debts can linger on credit records and make it harder for people to borrow in the future...

Other lenders like National City, the bank based in Cleveland, have blocked homeowners from refinancing first mortgages unless the borrowers pay off the second lien held by the bank first. But such tactics carry significant risk, said Michael Youngblood, a portfolio manager and analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, the securities firm. “It might also impel the borrower to file for bankruptcy,” and a judge could write down the value of the second mortgage, he said.

A spokeswoman for National City, Kristen Baird Adams, said the policy applied only to home equity loans originated by mortgage brokers.

Underscoring the difficulties likely to arise from home equity loans, a Democratic proposal in Congress to refinance troubled mortgages and provide them with government backing specifically excludes second liens. Lenders holding a second lien would be required to write off their debts before the first loan could be refinanced. That could leave out a significant number of loans, analysts say.

People with weak, or subprime, credit could be hurt the most. More than a third of all subprime loans made in 2006 had associated second-lien debt, up from 17 percent in 2000, according to Credit Suisse. And many people added second loans after taking out first mortgages, so it is impossible to say for certain how many homeowners have multiple liens on their properties.

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