The Housing Chronicles Blog: Banks finally seeing short sales as cheaper than foreclosures

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Banks finally seeing short sales as cheaper than foreclosures

For a few months now I've been hearing rumblings that many of the non-foreclosure sales out there are actually short sales since lenders have, after needlessly losing more money than necessary to the (old-fashioned) foreclosure process, realized that short sales are faster, easier and prevent angry borrowers from trashing the place when they leave.

So what took them so long? Well, I can only speak from personal experience, but my very first job out of college was for a mortgage company that was associated with a (now-defunct) S&L, and rocket scientists they weren't. From an L.A. Times story:

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 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....

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...

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...

Then there's the problem of second mortgages, which have proved to be a thorny impediment to the housing recovery. The loans were widespread during the boom years as people tapped rising equity or financed a down payment.

Of the 1.2 million U.S. properties in foreclosure, about 34%, or 403,670, have a second loan, according to RealtyTrac. In California, with 280,023 properties in foreclosure, about 46%, or 128,800, have a second loan.

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