U.S. home prices may get a boost from an unlikely source: a pickup in sales of properties in default before they reach the stage where they are repossessed by the bank and sold.
There has been a "dramatic shift" in banks' willingness to sell a property for less than the mortgage balance to avoid foreclosing, said Ron Peltier, chairman and chief executive officer of HomeServices of America Inc., the second-biggest U.S. residential brokerage.
The transactions, known as short sales, typically change hands at a discount of about 20 percent to homes not in financial distress, compared with a 40 percent price cut for bank-owned homes, according to RealtyTrac Inc. Short sales jumped 19 percent in the second quarter from the prior three months while foreclosure sales were flat, the data seller said.
"Banks have become much more supportive of short sales," said Peltier, whose Minneapolis-based company is a unit of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. "That's better for the lenders, who have smaller losses on a short sale, and it's going to be better for homeowners, who won't have as much psychological distress as a foreclosure."
Distressed sales brokered by HomeServices used to be 60 percent foreclosures and 40 percent short sales, Peltier said in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. Now, that ratio has flipped, according to the CEO, whose company is second in size to NRT LLC, a unit of Realogy Corp. in Parsippany, New Jersey, that has about 700 offices under the Coldwell Banker brand.
"There's a huge backlog of homes in default that the banks want to get rid of," said Thomas Popik, research director for Campbell Surveys in Washington. "They don't want to be homeowners."
Banks are being more agreeable to short sales as foreclosures slow following a yearlong probe of so-called robo- signing, or pushing through unverified default documents. Foreclosure filings have fallen for 12 straight months through September as banks work through a backlog of paperwork, RealtyTrac data show. About 6.4 million loans are either delinquent or in default, according to Lender Processing Services Inc., a mortgage software firm in Jacksonville, Florida.
Third of Transactions
Almost a third of all home transactions in August were foreclosures or short sales, according to the National Association of Realtors. While short sales were flat compared with a year earlier, the trade group's count only includes deals completed with a broker, and short sales often are handled directly with lenders.
Banks are not only approving more short sales, they're doing it in less time. In the second quarter, short-sale homes, also known as pre-foreclosures, sold an average 245 days after default, down from 256 days in the previous period, according to Irvine, California-based RealtyTrac. That reversed three straight quarters of increases.
The time frame remains a lot longer than traditional sales. In a normal transaction, a buyer bids on a home and gets a decision from its owners within days, if not hours. Getting a bank response to a short-sale offer can take two months or more.
"No matter how streamlined a short sale may be, it's always going to be a frustrating experience," Popik said. "Too many people are involved — investors, servicers, owners, real estate brokers, mortgage insurance companies."
Half of troubled mortgages have so-called second liens, such as home equity lines of credit, according to the Treasury Department, so there may be two mortgage holders with a stake in a short sale. If the property has mortgage insurance, that company may be involved in the negotiations as well.
Because short sales typically are occupied soon after the deal, neighboring properties take less of a hit in values, according to Popik. Prices for distressed homes often are used by appraisers to gauge surrounding values, even if the nearby homes aren't in default. Also, owners who voluntarily give up their homes tend to leave them in better shape than people who are evicted, reducing costs for banks, he said.
"Anytime a short sale can be substituted for a foreclosure, it's going to prop up prices and it's going to cut losses because it's going to sell for more," he said.
Worse Than Depression
Home values have declined 31 percent in the last five years, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index of values in 20 U.S. cities, as competition from foreclosures pressures sellers to lower their asking prices. The resulting crash was worse than the 27 percent plunge in values during the Depression, said Stan Humphries, chief economist of Zillow Inc., a Seattle-based real estate information company.
The drop in home values has pushed almost a quarter of U.S. mortgage borrowers underwater, meaning their debt is more than their homes are worth, according to a report by CoreLogic Inc., a real estate data company in Santa Ana, California. That so- called negative equity prevents owners from conducting traditional deals because they would have to pay the difference between their loan balance and the sale price.
Short-sellers can negotiate with banks to forgive the unpaid portion, according to Steve Beede, an attorney in Fair Oaks, California, who specializes in dealing with loans in default. Even if they succeed, a second-lien holder in most states can pursue people for mortgage-payoff shortfalls, he said.
Banks are starting to "get their act together" with short sales, said Cameron Novak, a broker with The Homefinding Center in Corona, California. The company handles about 15 of the transactions a month, he said.
"There's been improvement in the last few months, and response times are getting to be a little quicker," Cameron said in a telephone interview. "It's about time."