The Housing Chronicles Blog: Short sales not that easy

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Short sales not that easy

For those who think that short sales are easy -- when banks accept less than the full amount owed on a mortgage to avoid foreclosure -- L.A. Times writer Diane Wedner offers up some cautions, including great patience with the banks for a response:

RESIDENTIAL short sales sound like a picnic: Owners need to sell their homes for less than they owe, lenders forgive the difference and buyers grab a good deal.

If only. This is one picnic that requires a long wait for dessert. The only "short" thing about short sales, buyers and sellers say, is one's patience.

"The waiting is torture," said Mark Shandrow, a Keller Williams Realty agent in Long Beach who specializes in such transactions. "The banks are overwhelmed with short-sale requests, and some make sellers wait five months for an answer." That answer, in many cases, he added, is "no."

Yet despite the obstacles to successful short sales -- lenders holding the first and second mortgages don't agree on the terms, buyers often ditch the deal midstream or banks nix the agreement just before escrow closes -- they're on the rise. Countrywide Financial Corp. of Calabasas, the largest U.S. home lender, reports a nearly 60% increase in those transactions nationwide in April, the latest month for which statistics are available, from the same period a year earlier...

The reason for the rise, experts say, is that as more financially strapped homeowners fall behind on their mortgage payments -- and see their homes' values plummet to less than what they owe -- they're turning to short sales as an alternative to foreclosure. Banks, once loath to take on short sales because, among other reasons, they were understaffed for the application onslaught, are tackling them now mainly because they're more cost-effective than foreclosures.

"Banks aren't happy about short sales," said Sherri Frost, a senior loan officer with Sherman Oaks-based Metrocities Mortgage, "but they have few options."

Unlike a foreclosure, in which the lender takes ownership of a property after a borrower misses several payments, a short sale is a transaction in which the owners, not the bank, sell the home; they receive no proceeds from the sale. In a foreclosure, the defaulting owner may receive sales proceeds once the lender has been paid, if the amount exceeds that of the outstanding loan.

If a short-sale borrower owes $500,000 on a home, the bank may accept a payoff amount of $450,000, the amount a buyer has offered to pay. The sellers need not be in default -- meaning they stopped making mortgage payments -- in order for a lender to consider a short sale, but they must be able to show a real hardship to receive the debt forgiveness, which may have tax consequences...

It sounds straightforward, but the short-sale road is a long one. Once sellers have an offer, they must assemble a package to present to the bank, including a "hardship letter" explaining why they had to put the house up for sale -- loss of employment, a spousal death, a divorce, a disability or a mortgage resetting, for example -- and asking the bank to accept a short sale, according to a Countrywide spokeswoman.

The sellers also must provide income verification, their most recent bank and income-tax statements, the listing history of the house and other documentation. Then comes the wait. And frequent follow-up calls to the bank to make sure the file isn't buried...

Sometimes, while awaiting a bank's decision, interest rates go up and buyers no longer qualify for a previously approved loan because their lock-in rates expired. Worse yet, a seller may get an initial approval from the bank, but in the eleventh hour the bank adds a contingency that skewers the deal, or pulls the plug without explanation, agents say...

Lenders will not accept short-sale offers that are far below market value. To the contrary, many banks "net about 90% of the current market value" on many of these sales, agent Shandrow said. Also, the homes usually are sold as is, which sometimes can mean a missing kitchen sink, ripped-out bathroom fixtures and stained carpets.

Marty Rodriguez, a Century 21 agent in Glendora, says she won't take a short-sale offer to the bank unless it's reasonable. "The negotiator doesn't want to look at 12 offers," Rodriguez said. "He wants the best, highest and the most qualified ones."

Buyers looking for bargains should wait until short-sale and foreclosure prices are down about 35% from the peak market in their search area, said James Joseph, owner of Century 21 Ambassador in Brea and Whittier.

"Short sales and foreclosures are the nails in the floor of the market," Joseph said. "That's where the bargains are."

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