Why banks are reluctant to foreclose on expensive homes

By Felix Salmon
February 28, 2012
article today, showing that expensive homes are less likely to be foreclosed on than cheaper homes.

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The WSJ has an interesting if unsurprising article today, showing that expensive homes are less likely to be foreclosed on than cheaper homes.

This stands to reason, of course. For all the talk of strawberry pickers buying McMansions at the height of the subprime bubble, expensive homes are much more likely to be owned by rich people than cheap homes are. And if a rich person owes a bank somewhere north of a million dollars, the bank is likely to be quite aggressive in attempting to get all of the money it’s owed, rather than simply letting the borrower walk away from their house. For a $200,000 house, by contrast, the cost of aggressively pursuing the homeowner is much less likely to be worth the marginal benefit.

On top of that, there’s a reasonably liquid market for smaller homes — if you put them on the market in a fire sale, there’s a good chance that they will sell, quickly, for within $25,000 or so of their fair market price. In the million-dollar-plus range, however, homes stay on the market much longer, the discounts for fire sales are larger, there’s no real rental market, and the cost of maintaining the home while it’s unsold can be substantial.

That said, there is a problem here, and it’s not that people in expensive houses get to live rent-free for 792 days on average. Rather, it’s that people in normal-sized homes are treated unnecessarily badly by Fannie and Freddie.

Smaller mortgages are more likely to be bundled into securities and later resold to investors with backing from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, the government-controlled mortgage giants, have set strict foreclosure timelines and will fine mortgage servicers that are found to be needlessly delaying the foreclosure process.

There’s no reason why mortgage workouts should be long, drawn-out affairs. Indeed, if you’re going to do some kind of restructuring, it’s always better to do it sooner rather than later. But the fact is that the big banks in America are pretty incompetent when it comes to these things: they lose paperwork all the time, they don’t provide a single point of contact for homeowners, their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing, etc etc. But here’s the problem: as all those obstacles and delays get thrown up, the banks get ever closer to the Frannie-imposed deadline, and are effectively forced to foreclose even if they have good workout options. Freddie Mac tells the WSJ that it requires mortgage servicers to “explore every possible avenue to help a struggling borrower avoid foreclosure” — but if at first that servicer messes things up, Freddie’s far from sympathetic about giving them time to try to rectify the error.

It gets worse. The WSJ piece includes the story of Virgilio Wani and his wife, who became delinquent on their mortgage when they both lost their jobs. As soon as Mr Wani got a part-time job, he tried to start making payments again, but the bank refused those payments and foreclosed instead, handing title to Freddie Mac. What did Freddie Mac do with the house once it had title? First, it evicted the Wanis. Then, it started talking to them about a loan modification. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is the wrong way round.

It’s entirely possible that Freddie Mac and the Wanis will find a solution which allows the Wanis to get back the title to their home. So long as that’s a possibility, the Wanis should absolutely remain in their home: evicting them does nobody any good at all.

It’s a perennial frustration to me that foreclosure always and everywhere seems to be followed immediately by eviction. That’s just stupid, for all concerned. Kicking people out of their home creates a lot of deadweight losses which can’t ever be recovered. In a case like this one, where there’s a good chance that the original homeowner will regain title, the best solution is clearly for that family to remain in the home until the situation is resolved one way or the other.

But even when there’s no chance of the former homeowner being able to buy their home back, it still makes sense to keep that family in their home. These days, many if not most of the people buying homes out of foreclosure are buying those homes to rent out, rather than to live in. And it makes perfect sense to rent the home to the family which has been living there for years, if you can. It’s always worth a try.

So for me the important thing isn’t the amount of time between delinquency and foreclosure, but rather the amount of time between delinquency and eviction. Let’s allow families to stay in their homes even after they’ve been foreclosed upon, unless and until the home is sold to someone who doesn’t want to keep that family on as renters. It would improve the quality of life for millions of people, and would create economic value at the same time. What’s not to love?

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