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13 Apr 09 Are Short Sales Helping Homeowners

Lenders agree to let owners who can’t make payments sell their house for less than they owe.

Falling home prices are giving rise to a foreclosure alternative that can help people get out of homes they can’t afford.

When home prices were rising, people who lost a job or otherwise couldn’t pay their mortgage, could have sold and moved on. Declining home values mean some can’t sell for enough to pay off the loan. In those cases, short sales are an option.

In a short sale, the lender agrees to accept less than the mortgage balance as payment in full because it’s a less costly route than foreclosure. Both processes result in losses for lenders, but with foreclosures, they have the added costs of maintaining and selling properties. Short sales also spare homeowners the embarrassment of foreclosure and eviction.

A short sale will damage a person’s credit score, but Fair Issacs, keepers of the widely used FICO credit score, says the impact depends in part “on the composition of the individual’s credit profile.”

“We really think it is a much better experience for everyone concerned,” said David Knight, who handles short sales nationwide as a vice president with Wells Fargo & Co.’s mortgage servicing unit in Fort Mill.

The San Francisco bank, which recently bought Charlotte’s Wachovia, is one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and servicers. Knight declined to provide specific figures but said Wells’ short sales have “probably tripled” in the past 18 months as unemployment has risen and home prices fallen. They’re more common in former bubble markets, where prices shot up and fell harder than in areas such as Charlotte.

Short sales aren’t always advertised as such, so there’s no way to get a complete count. Unlike foreclosures, there also are no consistent indicators of short sales in public records. But local Realtors say they’ve seen an increase. Job loss, unexpected bills and job transfers, coupled with lower home prices, are all factors driving the use of short sales.

“They’re really coming on in this last year,” said Joe Clorite, a Realtor for 20 years, who is with Keller Williams Realty’s University office. “People are in over their heads.”

Nationwide, short sales are up about 20 percent in the past six months, said Mark Pearce, N.C. deputy commissioner of banks. That’s based on figures collected from mortgage servicers by a multistate foreclosure prevention group Pearce is part of. The group has not yet publicly released the data.

“Short sales are going up fairly significantly,” Pearce said. “They’re better than foreclosures.”

Homes losing value

Struggling to make their monthly mortgage payment, Meleta and Gerald Wideman called their lender for help.

“Once we got behind, they said we could do a short sale to get out of the loan,” she said.

The couple, with two children, moved to Charlotte in 2006 from Chicago after visiting family and deciding they liked the area. They bought a new house in Oakbrooke, a subdivision north of uptown. They paid about $140,000.

Their troubles began the first year. They were school bus drivers and couldn’t find summer work. She found a year-round job working with blood donors, but her overtime has been cut. They are Seventh Day Adventists, and say their faith prohibits work on Saturday. All the year-round jobs he’s been able to find require Saturday work.

Seeing no way around it, they listed the house for sale. The asking price, $99,900, is well less than what’s owed. Nearby homes have shed value, too. A foreclosed home across the street sold two years ago for $143,000. On Friday, its listing price was $92,700. Another foreclosure is listed for $117,900, down from the $140,000 paid less than two years ago.

Meleta Wideman says they’re looking for a place to rent in the Charlotte area.

“I’m scared to leave because the economy is so bad,” she said. “I’m working full time. We know we can eat.”

Closing can take longer

A big drawback of short sales is added red tape that means closing a deal can take months, a potential turn-off for sellers, buyers and Realtors.

Clorite has had a house listed in Oakbrooke since May. He went through the months-long process of finding a buyer, getting a short sale approved. At the last minute, the buyer’s financing fell through, so the house is back on the market.

“There is more cooperation, but they are still far behind,” Clorite said of lenders handling short sales.

The Oakbrooke owner he represents is a California investor who thought he got a good deal in 2006 when he paid about $155,000 for the new house.

The investor, who asked not to be named, said he has been unable to get a reliable tenant. He’s lost money, paying for extensive repairs as well as the mortgage, taxes and insurance. Now rents are going down. The house is listed for $120,000, likely to sell for less.

“It’s better to just cut the losses and dump the property,” the investor said.

Clorite believes he has another buyer, but again, he’s waiting on lender approval.

Short sales take time because everyone being short changed must approve the deals. That includes the mortgage holder, others with liens such as home equity loans and investors backing the mortgages. They may negotiate among themselves on how much of the loss each will accept.

Lenders have become more efficient, Pearce said, but the sluggish process can still turn away buyers.

“They’re not going to wait when there are so many homes being sold for lower prices these days,” he said.

See the original article written by Stella M. Hopkins.

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