Mortgage workouts of the day, short-sale edition

By Felix Salmon
February 7, 2012
Prashant Gopal has an intriguing story today on the way in which banks are not only doing more short sales than they used to, but are even throwing in cash sweeteners to speed things along.

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Prashant Gopal has an intriguing story today on the way in which banks are not only doing more short sales than they used to, but are even throwing in cash sweeteners to speed things along. Why would they be doing such a thing? The banks aren’t saying, but theories abound:

Lenders can often afford to forgive debt, offer the incentive and still make a profit because they purchased the loan from another bank at a discount, said Trent Chapman, a Realtor who trains brokers and attorneys to negotiate with banks for short sales…

Cecala of Inside Mortgage Finance said he wonders whether lenders are making big payments on properties with underlying title problems. Evan Berlin, managing partner of Berlin Patten, a real estate law firm in Sarasota, Florida, said representatives of a large bank told him the incentives are primarily given to borrowers when it doesn’t have the proper paperwork needed to win its foreclosure case.

It certainly rings true that banks are more likely to take losses on a loan when they purchased that loan at a discount. We saw that with principal reductions, last year, and it’s no surprise that it might be moving into short sales too.

More generally, it makes sense that once a homeowner has been living in their home for a year or more without making any kind of rent or mortgage payments, they start getting quite comfortable with that lifestyle, and become rather difficult to dislodge. Cash incentives can work much better than lawsuits, especially when there are title problems.

Frankly, the banks brought this on themselves. It’s well known in mortgage-servicing circles that the faster you move, when a mortgage goes into default, the more money you can save. But too many banks have let far too many mortgages fester in default for far too long — which means that all too many of them are all but worthless at this point.

What the banks should have done, when these mortgages went into default, was work with the homeowners, giving them a menu of options. Would you like to do a short sale? Would you like a modification, with lower monthly payments? Would you like some kind of principal reduction? Would you even be interested in some kind of deal where you sell your house and then get to rent it back from the new owner?

Instead, the banks did nothing, rebuffed attempts from homeowners to contact them and work something out, and generally said no to innovative ideas. Leaving them much worse off, and forced to resort to actions like this:

JPMorgan gave one Phoenix homeowner $20,000 after she sold her property in June for $32,000, according to Royce Hauger, the real estate agent who represented the seller and shared a copy of the settlement sheet with Bloomberg News. The bank also agreed to forgive more than $70,000 in debt, she said.

As such deals continue, and the homes then get dumped onto the market at any price, they will only serve to further depress the US housing market more generally. What’s more, they’ll act as an incentive for homeowners to stop paying their mortgage and start holding out for a big check in return for leaving their homes quietly. The whole thing is an unholy and unnecessary mess. Although I’m shedding no tears at all for the banks, who are admittedly the biggest losers.

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