‘Flopping’ scam enables fraudulent flipping in housing market

Although reports of mortgage fraud nationally fell 41 percent in 2010 from 2009, the continuing downturn in the housing market has fostered new ways of perpetrating it, experts say.

Consider “flopping” — the intentional misrepresentation of housing value for purposes of illegal flipping.

Here’s how it works: A real-estate agent or broker identifies properties with severely depressed values. These could be properties with mortgages that exceed the present values or they could be short sales or foreclosures.

A property is valued using a “broker price opinion.” The broker’s “opinion” is a lowball price, because his intention is to profit from a quick resale for a higher price.

A lender, believing the broker’s assessment is legitimate and unaware of any scheming, agrees to the lower sales price.

The broker buys it at the greatly reduced price, arranges for a “straw buyer” to purchase it, then flips it for a higher price than negotiated with the lender. The broker pockets the profits.

The broker pays off any of the participants that enabled the scheme, and then moves to the next target property.

Misrepresentation

“This is a misrepresentation of value,” said Denise James, co-author of an annual report on the topic by the LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute, during a recent teleconference.

She said such schemes could add to problems faced by regions with an abundance of distressed housing, since “lenders will grow concerned with false depreciation of values,” thus making the buying and selling of homes even more difficult in depressed housing markets.

“Flopping increases as desperation to get rid of rising inventory grows,” she said.

While reports of fraud by 600 lenders and other real-estate businesses to the LexisNexis mortgage institute declined year over year, “the decrease does not necessarily correlate to actual occurrences of (fraud), which are rising according to several industry sources,” James said.

Rising numbers

Suspected mortgage fraud submitted to the Federal Financial Crime Reporting Network rose 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, for example.

The list of crimes included short sales, bankruptcy abuse, debt-elimination scams, income and employment misrepresentation, Social Security number theft and loan-modification fraud.

Mortgage fraud has become more complex and is more difficult to verify, James said, because many lenders are trying to implement new procedures at the same time they are trying to recover huge financial losses.

Florida leads the list of states with high levels of fraud, with the institute’s index showing more than three times as many reports of fraud than legitimate mortgage originations.

One of the fastest-growing ways homeowners are being bilked is by people posing as the new servicers of their mortgages, she said.

“They (the homeowners) get letters saying, ‘I’m your new servicer. Send your payments to me,’ ” James said. “Homeowners who are not aware that there is a formal procedure involved in changing servicers” fall victim to this scam.

Source: By Alan Heavens, The Philadelphia Inquirer (6/10/2011)

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Foreclosures for sale: Big supply, low prices

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — There’s a three-year inventory of homes in foreclosure for sale, and that’s devastating home prices.

Las Vegas has so many foreclosures that 53% of all the homes sold in Nevada are in some stage of foreclosure, according to a report from RealtyTrac, the online marketer of foreclosed properties.

Foreclosures represent 45% of sales in California and Arizona, and 28% of all existing home sales during the first three months of 2011.

“This is very bad for the economy,” said Rick Sharga, a spokesman for RealtyTrac.

What’s more, the homes are selling at steep discounts, especially so-called REOs, bank-owned homes that have been taken in foreclosure procedures.

The average REO cost on average about 35% less than comparable properties, according to RealtyTrac.

But in some areas, the discounts were ever greater: In New York State, the discount for REOs was 53% during the first quarter. And it was nearly 50% in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

10 dirt cheap housingmarkets

Also weighing on market prices are “short sales,” homes where the selling price is less than what is owed by the borrowers. These sales sold at an average 9% discount.

Including both REOs and short sales, Ohio had the biggest discount of any state, at 41%.

There were 158,000 deals involving distressed properties nationwide during the first quarter, less than half the nearly 350,000 during the same period two years earlier.

With the slowed sales pace, it will take three years to burn through the inventory of 1.9 million distressed properties, according to Sharga.

“Even if you look at REOs alone, it will take 24 months to clear them and that’s without any new foreclosures at all coming into the system,” said Sharga.

Banks to Pay $22 Mil for Military Foreclosure Errors

Bank of America and Morgan Stanley have agreed to pay more than $22 million combined to settle federal civil charges on improperly foreclosing on military personnel, The Associated Press reports.

Between 2006 and 2009, the mortgage lenders foreclosed on 178 military members in 22 states without getting court approval. The military members affected will each receive $125,562, on average. The banks will also continue to investigate whether improper foreclosures occurred in 2009 through 2010.

The settlement is “easily the largest amount recovered” in a case of improper military foreclosures, Thomas E. Perez, an assistant attorney general, told The Associated Press.

The Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act offers protections to military personnel to prevent foreclosures. It bans evictions or creditors trying to repossess their property while on active duty.

JPMorgan Chase earlier this year admitted to overcharging about 4,000 military personnel on mortgages and wrongly foreclosing on 14. It paid $2 million in settlement charges originally and last month paid more than $60 million to settle a class-action lawsuit regarding the overcharges.

Source: “2 Firms to Pay for Improper Military Foreclosures,” Associated Press (May 26, 2011)

Commercial Real Estate Slowly Turning Around

Sales and leasing volumes in commercial real estate have turned a corner and are heading up, but because the past few years have been so difficult, the upturn barely feels like one. However, the sector is expected to strengthen more over the next couple of years, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun told commercial real estate practitioners on Thursday at the 2011 REALTORS® Midyear Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington.

Financing remains a major stumbling block, with little commercial mortgage backed security activity happening, but banks — particularly regional banks — are stepping in with portfolio loans, said Yun.

That’s a bit surprising, because the big-four national banks — Wells Fargo, Citibank, Chase, and Bank of America — are in a far better position to make loans. Not only are they sitting on piles of money, but because they’ve grown to the point where they’re too big to fail, they have a de facto implicit federal guarantee, Yun said.

A big concern looming is inflation. It remains low, about 2.9 percent (excluding energy and other volatile components to the economy), but inflation could rise and hit 5 percent by the end of the year and 6 percent in the early part of 2012, Yun predicted. If that happens, interest rate costs would also rise. For the federal government, a 2 percent increase in rates could wipe out a lot of any deficit reduction steps the government might take between now and the end of the year, because in some analyses, that could translate into $2 trillion in increased debt service payments for the government.

In the individual commercial sectors, multifamily housing has been the standout over the last year. Vacancies hit historically normal levels last year at about 5-6 percent with solid rental rate growth. Look for 4 percent higher rents nationally by the end of this year. That figure could be considerably higher in some first-tier markets like Washington, D.C., where rental rates have been rising at almost a double-digit clip.

Those gains might ease in the next year or two, though, as residential home sales improve. The high rental rate increases could tip the scale for some renters to consider home ownership. Yun has said on other occasions that almost 40 percent of the renter population today has the financial ability to become home owners, but for now are choosing to rent.

In the office market, vacancy rates are expected to decline steadily, from 16.5 percent in the first quarter of this year to 16 percent at the end of the year. Rental rate increases could turn positive for the first time in a while, too, to maybe 5 percent from a negative 2 percent. Offices are benefitting from recent job gains in professional service-type jobs like accountants and lawyers.

Among markets tracked by NAR, New York City has the lowest vacancy rate at a little over 8 percent. Washington, D.C., with its federal government-fueled activity, also has a relatively low vacancy rate. Pittsburgh, which has been steadily transitioning from an industrial city to a high-tech and professional services city, is among the metros with relatively strong office trends.

Industrial markets are also expected to improve, with vacancy rates projected to decline from 14.2 percent to about 12.9 percent at the end of the year. Yun is predicting positive rental rate growth of about 2 percent this year. Los Angeles, with its big Asia import-export trade, has the lowest vacancies at 7.5 percent.

Retail markets continue to struggle, with consumers still retrenching in their spending. In the long run, increased savings by consumers is good, because it boosts household financial stability, Yun said, but in the short term retail properties are getting little relief. Vacancy rates are only expected to improve marginally, from about 13 percent to just slightly better by the end of the year. Even so, the sector might see some improvement in rental rate growth, moving from a negative 1 percent to 1 percent in positive territory by the end of the year. San Francisco is in the best shape among major metro areas with a vacancy rate of about 6.7 percent.

You might not “feel the impact of the recovery,” Yun said. “The hole was so deep, it might still feel like we’re in a hole.”

Source: By, Robert Freedman, REALTOR® Magazine

In Time for Buying Season, Rates Reach Yearly Lows

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, a popular choice among buyers, sank even lower this week, matching its yearly low of 4.71 percent from January, reports Freddie Mac in its weekly mortgage market survey. Last year at this time, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5 percent.

Meanwhile, the 15-year fixed-rate hit a new yearly low of 3.89 percent this week. Last week, the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.97 percent. The 15-year rate averaged 4.36 percent last year at this time. It reached its lowest level on record in November when it averaged 3.57 percent.

The one-year adjustable-rate mortgage averaged 3.14 percent, down from last week’s 3.15 percent. Last year at this time, it averaged 4.07 percent.

“Weaker economic data reports reduced Treasury bond yields and allowed mortgage rates to drift lower for the third consecutive week,” says Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac’s chief economist.

Source: “30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage Matches Yearly Low of 4.71 Percent,” Freddie Mac (May 5, 2011)

Gov’t Looks to Reduce Real Estate Inventory

The Obama administration is looking to get rid of 14,000 surplus properties that the federal government owns around the country and is costing taxpayers money to maintain.

The surplus properties include everything from unused roads and empty lots to warehouses and office buildings.

“The government can no longer foot the bill for vacant buildings,” says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who also has authored a bill to quickly dispose of the government’s surplus property, but without using a special commission as the Obama administration has proposed.

The federal government spent about $134 million to maintain surplus buildings in 2009. The Obama administration says that improving the government’s management of surplus properties stands to save taxpayers $15 billion over several years.

The Obama administration is proposing a special commission be used to handle the surplus property in order to try to sidestep problems that have hindered the sale of these properties in the past. The presidentially-appointed, seven-member Civilian Property Realignment Board would evaluate surplus federal properties and make recommendations to “significantly reduce” the government’s real estate inventory, which ultimately would be voted upon by Congress.

The government believes there are some 12,000 surplus federal properties within the U.S. and about 2,000 overseas. The commission would not deal with military, national security sites, national parks, or wildlife refuges.

Source: “Obama Seeks Special Panel to Unload Federal Real Estate,” McClatchy Newspapers (May 4, 2011)

BofA opens office for foreclosure alternatives

Bank of America announced Wednesday it had opened an office in Seattle to allow distressed homeowners whose mortgages it services to meet face to face with specialists and consider alternatives to foreclosure.

Meetings are by appointment only, available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Bank of America customers can call the office at (206) 358-4338 to make an appointment.

The bank is also holding outreach events from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. May 19-21 at the Meydenbauer Convention Center in Bellevue and the Spokane Convention Center. To register, go to www.bankofamerica.com/outreachevent or call toll-free (855) 201-7426.