Friday, May 8, 2009
For underwater homeowners who opt for the short sale, this WSJ article suggests that they still might have to tread water. In a short sale, a seller facing foreclosure can work out a deal with the lender to sell the property for less than the outstanding debt, which the lender will accept as a payoff. However, as the article explains, this doesn't necessarily mean that the borrower is "home free":
In a growing number of cases, holders of mortgages or home-equity loans are requiring borrowers in short sales to sign a promissory note, which is a written promise to pay back a loan or debt. Real-estate agents and attorneys say they have seen an increase in requests for promissory notes as mortgage companies look to short sales as an alternative to foreclosure.
In many states, lenders have always had the right to pursue former homeowners for unpaid mortgage debt. Yet until recently, most borrowers who ran into trouble were able to refinance or sell their homes and pay off their loans. Now, falling home prices are widening the gap between home values and mortgage balances, and the number of homeowners who can't make their mortgage payments is rising as the economy has weakened. More than 3.8 million homes will be lost in 2009 and 2010 because borrowers can't make their mortgage payments, according to forecasts from Moody's Economy.com.
Some borrowers are surprised to find themselves on the hook. Jodie Byrd sold her home in the Los Angeles area in a short sale last summer after her husband lost his job and the couple realized they wouldn't be able to make their mortgage payments. The sale price covered the $685,000 mortgage, but their lender, Washington Mutual Co., then began pursuing them for the $21,600 balance on their second mortgage.
Ms. Byrd says a clause in their contract gave Washington Mutual the right to pursue the debt, but adds that her real-estate agent said that wasn't likely to happen. The couple eventually settled the claim for $4,000.
A spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., which acquired Washington Mutual last year, says it's the company's policy not to comment on individual cases. Speaking generally, he says, "a short sale may resolve the first mortgage, but the second mortgage ... would be a separate negotiation with the lender or servicer."
Some experts say that mortgage companies may pursue leftover debt, or "deficiencies," in greater numbers as the housing market settles. Lenders are "doing everything possible to work with their borrowers and trying to bring stability back to the lending and real-estate market," says Marc Ben-Ezra, an attorney in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who represents mortgage companies in foreclosures. "However, the ability to get a deficiency judgment is a valuable right that I think lenders will pursue aggressively in the future as the market stabilizes."
What, then, is the incentive for the borrower to opt for a short sale instead of foreclosure? It seems that, if the borrower's counsel can't get the bank to consider the loan paid in full, the better option for the borrower is to allow the house to go into foreclosure. Why would anyone counsel the borrower to opt for a short sale if the borrower has to sign a promissory note for the difference? As I understand it, either option is bad for a borrower's credit.
[Meredith R. Miller]