SAN DIEGO — When delinquent borrowers do not respond to phone calls, letters or a door-knocking service, SunTrust Mortgage Inc. pulls out all the stops.
For example, in October the unit of SunTrust Banks Inc. mailed ornamental Halloween pumpkins to a group of borrowers in Arizona, California and Florida — all high-foreclosure states — who were 90 days or more past due. To entice the borrower to get in touch, each pumpkin came with a gift card worth $200 that could be activated by calling SunTrust. When borrowers called, the servicer would advise them about workout options.
"Two years ago, if we had come up with this stuff, they would have fired me," said Jason Spooner, SunTrust's senior vice president of default.
But since the mortgage crisis began, reaching troubled borrowers has been an industrywide challenge requiring creative responses. Many homeowners are frightened of losing their homes, embarrassed by their situations or unaware of all their options.
Freddie Mac's servicers are still unable to reach nearly half its delinquent borrowers, said Ingrid Beckles, the government-sponsored enterprise's senior vice president of default asset management. The best contact rates have come from third-party door-knocking firms.
"Just by having someone besides us or the lender call the borrower means we're able to attack some of the reluctance and hesitance" on the part of the borrower, Beckles said. (She and the other executives quoted in this story spoke at the Mortgage Bankers Association's servicing conference in San Diego this week.)
Eric Schuppenhauer, Beckles' counterpart at Fannie Mae, agreed, telling servicers: "This is not a time to be cheap on loss mitigation."
The pumpkins and similar campaigns are paying off for SunTrust Banks, Spooner said. Though only 11% of the borrowers who received the pumpkins responded, SunTrust made up the $200 cost of sending each package with a couple of loan modifications. Other borrowers have received mailboxes with yellow stickers saying "Save Your Home," or compasses with an accompanying letter that begins, "here's where you're headed." A SunTrust spokesman said it has sent 1,780 of these packages in all.
These eye-catching, if somewhat kitschy, tactics have helped SunTrust resolve $500 million of loans, all of them held on its balance sheet, Spooner said. (The company has roughly $30 billion of home mortgages on its books in all. National Mortgage News says SunTrust was the nation's seventh-largest servicer as of Sept. 30, with $175 billion of loans, including those it managed for third-party investors like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)
When delinquencies started skyrocketing last year, Spooner recruited marketing experts from the mortgage origination side to come up with unique ways to get borrowers to respond.
The people from the marketing group were "some of the happiest people I've met," he said, though they may be "a little less happy" since working on the campaigns.
The mailboxes contained paperwork for a preapproved loan modification and an overnight mail envelope for returning the documents. This campaign worked a little better than the pumpkins, with a response rate of 17%.
SunTrust has also tried giving borrowers a cell phone that could only call one number: a dedicated line in SunTrust's servicing department. If that sounds familiar, it may be because about three years ago Quantum Servicing Corp. mailed prepaid cell phones, free of charge, to delinquent borrowers. Quantum's phones could be activated for broader use — but only after the recipient called the servicer.
SunTrust sent the compasses to borrowers who were 180 to 360 days past due on their loans. With this group, SunTrust offered to accept a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure and to waive any deficiency (the amount of a loan not covered by what the home fetches in a sale). The company sweetened the deal by offering $3,000 to $5,000 cash for the house keys.
Property investors jumped at the offers — they got a 50% response rate. The rate for owner-occupiers was lower but still considerably better than the pumpkins or the mailboxes — 30%.
Spooner acknowledged that these campaigns are "the last stage" of the effort to help borrowers headed to foreclosure, after options like field visits have been tried.
He said he is talking with Fannie and Freddie about a pilot program that would use similar approaches to reach delinquent borrowers whose loans are held by the GSEs and serviced by SunTrust. Next month, the Atlanta company is to begin similar campaigns targeting borrowers who are current but may be struggling or facing imminent default, he said.
Then there are the borrowers in hard-hit markets like Florida who have not paid on their mortgages in more than a year and are still living in their homes. SunTrust does not want to take the houses back. But if it must, it would rather avoid having the assets sit in inventory and generating no cash flow while the real estate market remains depressed. So SunTrust may try to convert these owners to tenants.
It will not be easy. "Convincing an individual in Florida that has no work and hasn't paid his mortgage in 400 days — it's difficult to convince them to start paying rent," Spooner said.