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.

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More Borrowers Have ‘Strategy’ to Defaulting

More borrowers who can afford their mortgage payments are opting to stop making payments and walk away from their homes. But new research sets out to help lenders pinpoint the behavior that makes up these strategic defaulters.

According to research by FICO, these strategic defaulters pay their bills on time, rarely exceed their credit card limits, hardly use retail credit cards, have a reputable credit score, and tend to have a short occupancy in their current home.

“These are savvy people who organize themselves,” says Andrew Jennings, FICO’s chief analytics officer. “This is a planned activity, not an impulse activity.

Since they know their credit scores will be badly hit after they default, they even tend to open up new credit cards in advance to prepare, according to the FICO study.

“Mortgage payment patterns have shifted, and some borrowers are intentionally defaulting on their mortgages because they believe it is in their best financial interest, and because they believe the consequences will be minimal,” Jennings says. Most borrowers who strategically default owe much more on their home than it is currently worth.

But “before mortgage servicers can work effectively with potential strategic defaulters, they must first be able to identify them,” Jennings says.

That’s why FICO is releasing a new technology tool that will help lenders predict the probability of strategic default based on a borrower’s credit score.

“Our new research shows it is possible for servicers to find those at greatest risk of strategic default, both to prevent losses and to prevent borrowers from making a decision that will damage their credit future,” Jennings says.

How Many Are Out There?

Just how many home owners are “strategically” defaulting on their mortgage is difficult to estimate since “strategic defaulters have all the incentive to disguise themselves as people who cannot afford to pay,” according to researchers from the European University Institute, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago. Yet, researchers have estimated about 35 percent of the defaults in September may have been strategic, up from 26 percent in March 2009.

As defaulters continue to weigh on the industry, housing experts say the real estate market will take even longer to recover since foreclosures drag home prices down.

Source: “‘Strategic Defaulters’ Pay Bills on Time and Plan Ahead, Study Finds,” The Washington Post (April 22, 2011) and “New FICO Technology Predicts Strategic Default,” HousingWire (April 20, 2011)

Banks Get Failing Grade in Foreclosure Handling

Banks continue to receive backlash for their handling of a flood of foreclosures across the country. A new report released this week by federal regulators finds that banks failed to do a good job in handling foreclosures and sometimes evicted home owners when they clearly should not have.

The problems were “significant and pervasive” and added up to “a pattern of misconduct and negligence,” according to the Federal Reserve. The Fed says it soon plans to announce monetary penalties against mortgage servicers.

The report revealed several cases “in which foreclosures should not have proceeded due to an intervening event or condition,” such as families in bankruptcy or home owners who were eligible for a loan modification or even in the process of doing a loan modification.

The report also noted that banks had inadequate and poorly-trained staffs and improperly submitted paperwork to the courts.

In response to the report, several mortgage servicers signed a consent agreement this week, agreeing to changes that include new oversight procedures of foreclosures and reimbursing home owners who were wrongly foreclosed upon. One of the servicers signing the agreement, JPMorgan Chase, says it would add up to 3,000 employees to meet the new regulatory procedures.

“The banks are going to have to do substantial work, bear substantial expense, to fix the problem,” says John Walsh, the acting comptroller of the currency.

About two million households are in foreclosure, and several million home owners have already lost their home to foreclosure.

More Penalties Coming

The banks still face punishment and settlement talks with other agencies. The state attorneys general are conducting their own probe into shoddy foreclosure procedures and working with the Obama administration to overhaul the foreclosure process to prevent future abuses.

Source: “Report Criticizes Banks for Handling of Mortgages,” The New York Times (April 14, 2011)

Lawsuit reveals how a middleman is blocking mortgage modifications for homeowners

Pamela Jeter, of Atlanta, Ga., has been trying to get a mortgage modification for more than two years. She seems like an ideal candidate. She has shown she can stay current with a reduction in her monthly mortgage payments. Everybody would seem to win. Even the investors who ultimately own her loan think she should be able to get one. So, why is Jeter facing foreclosure?

A bank that she didn’t even know is involved with her loan has thrown up a roadblock to modifications. At least tens of thousands of other homeowners have shared a similar plight. Jeter’s case is a window into a broken system where even though the actual investors, when asked, say they want to allow modifications, the bank that acts as their representative has refused to allow them.

Two big banks act as middlemen between the homeowners like Jeter who make payments and the mortgage-backed securities investors who ultimately receive them. The banks’ jobs were supposed to be relatively hands-off, devoted more than anything to processing homeowner payments. When the housing bubble burst, they faced new demands.

One of those middleman roles is well-known to homeowners: the mortgage servicer, responsible for collecting homeowner payments and evaluating requests for a modification.

But it’s another middleman that’s proved the real barrier for Jeter: the trustee, who is supposed to be the investors’ representative, making sure the servicer is maximizing investors’ returns and distributing checks to them. HSBC is the trustee for the pool of loans of which Jeter’s is a part — and it’s refused to approve any modifications for loans like hers, saying the contracts around the mortgages simply don’t allow it.

The good news for Jeter is that, in what seems an unprecedented step, her servicer OneWest has taken HSBC to court to allow modifications. It filed suit in June of last year.

But in a sign of just how convoluted the mortgage world has become, OneWest is also pushing to foreclose on her. A recent sale date was avoided only after her lawyer threatened to sue. (One day after ProPublica published this story in March, OneWest postponed foreclosure, saying that it wouldn’t attempt to seize Jeter’s home again for at least two months.)

Bundled loan syndrome

Jeter’s loan was typical of the boom years. To help pay for improvements on her home in 2007, she’d refinanced into an interest-only adjustable-rate loan. That loan was bundled with thousands of others by a Wall Street bank and sold off to investors, such as pension funds, hedge funds and banks.

That’s where the trouble started. In Jeter’s loan pool and nine others, the contracts laying out the servicers’ responsibilities and powers contradict each other. OneWest’s lawsuit seeks to sort out that contradiction.

One document, a private contract between the servicer and the Wall Street bank that bundled the loans, explicitly forbids servicers from modifying loans in the pools in a way that would reduce homeowner payments. But other contracts — that investors could see — explicitly allow such modifications.

It’s become a familiar problem during the foreclosure crisis, dealing with the aftermath of the banks’ corner-cutting and sloppy paperwork of the housing boom.

No one appears to have tried to sort out this mess until 2009, when OneWest requested that HSBC, the trustee, allow modifications. The administration had just launched the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which pays servicers and investors subsidies to encourage affordable modifications. Under the program, modifications occur only when they will likely bring a better return to investors than foreclosure.

But HSBC refused to authorize any modifications, saying the contracts prohibit them. It’s obligated to act in investors’ interest, and it feared getting sued by those who didn’t want to cut homeowners’ payments. The dispute dragged on for months. Ultimately, HSBC offered to allow modifications only if OneWest accepted the risk of getting sued by investors, but OneWest wouldn’t.

OneWest was in an increasingly difficult situation, it says in its suit. It faced potential suits from investors if it modified loans, and if it didn’t, homeowners in the pool might sue.

In late June 2010, with HSBC still not budging, OneWest filed suit, asking a federal judge to decide whether modifications should or should not be allowed.

Eligible but not allowed

The case suggests that when investors themselves are asked, they will approve modifications. HSBC polled the investors in the 10 pools after the suit was filed. A large majority favored allowing modifications. Based on those results, HSBC said in a court filing in January that it did not oppose OneWest’s request for a judge to intervene and that if the judge declared modifications were allowed, that would be fine with them.

In the meantime, 3,000 homeowners like Jeter whose mortgages are caught up in the dispute have been unable to get any reduction in payments. When OneWest filed its suit, it said at least 800 of the loans seemed eligible for an affordable government-sponsored modification but couldn’t actually be modified because of HSBC’s stance. Those homeowners “are facing the possibility of losing their homes through potentially avoidable foreclosures every day,” it said.

It’s not clear how many of those homeowners have since been foreclosed on. OneWest said in a statement that it had no choice in pursuing foreclosure: It’s “contractually obligated to continue servicing loans in accordance with the terms of the underlying securitization documents.”

Foreclosure crisis

The suit is remarkable not only because it seems unique — close observers said they hadn’t seen another example of a servicer going to court against a trustee — but also because it lays bare a relationship that is usually a mystery to homeowners and investors in securitized mortgages.

It’s often hard for homeowners to tell if a servicer is correctly citing an investor restriction when denying a modification. Servicers have cited investor restrictions when denying modifications for at least 30,000 homeowners, about 2 percent of the 1.9 million total homeowners who’ve been denied, according to a ProPublica analysis of Treasury Department data. A Treasury spokeswoman said auditors examining such denials had found they were almost always legitimate. That’s not an experience shared by homeowner advocates.

In a number of cases, said Jeff Gentes, an attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, servicer employees have told his clients that there was an investor restriction, when a little bit of digging showed that’s not true. We reported on this problem last year.

Changes not pursued

In the cases when there actually is a restriction in the documents, the servicer is supposed to at least try to get permission. The HAMP rules require the servicer to send a letter to the trustee requesting that modifications be allowed.

In cases where there’s a clear contractual bar to modifications, the servicer and trustee could take the initiative to change the contracts by having the investors vote on it or, if voting isn’t required, amend the contract themselves.

But in general, said Gentes, the housing attorney, servicers are slow to investigate and eliminate bars to modification. Servicers are paid a low, flat rate per loan and are motivated to keep costs down. “The costs of removing an investor restriction are often borne by the servicers, and so extensive amendment rules often mean that servicers won’t pursue it.”

Trustees, who get paid even lower fees, are no different, said Bill Frey of Greenwich Financial Services, which specializes in mortgage-backed securities. “They’re very, very prone to inaction.”

Both, as middlemen, don’t bear the loss when a home is foreclosed on.

Source: By Paul Kiel, ProPublica.com (April 17, 2011)

House Flippers Return, Still Finding Profits

More investors are taking on the risk of flipping homes, despite falling home prices and sluggish real estate markets across the country. But investors say there are still profits to be made in the house flipping business.

Nearly 1 million homes were bought as investment properties in 2010, according to the National Association of REALTORS®, and a record number of buyers purchasing properties with cash currently are flooding the market.

Flipping homes for profit is easier in rising markets, but not many markets are reporting increases in home prices, analysts say. In Washington, D.C., Justin Konz of RestorationCapital says his clients are going through four of five properties a month and are making gross profit margins of 35 percent or higher.

Where to Find the Deals

Flippers mostly are finding their homes through foreclosures auctions, REOs, and short sales. They seek homes at rock-bottom prices that will have low fix-up costs, no more than about 5 percent or 10 percent of the purchase price.

In Florida, where investors are finding it more difficult to flip homes because of the drastic drop in prices and high inventories, flippers are targeting inner-city properties that are being sold at steep discounts. For example, some of houses are selling for $30,000 when they once sold for $200,000.

Perry Henderson, a real estate agent and investor in Austin, Texas, says the biggest opportunities in flipping are the “ugly” houses that have lingered on the market or “old houses that somebody’s grandma lived in for 40 years and didn’t do anything to. Now, she’s passed away and her family wants to sell quickly.”

Real estate investor Brian Fuller, who with partners buys and sells more than 200 properties a year in the San Diego area, says he’s drawn to the “biggest eyesore on the block.” He says they then “ turn it into the best looking house there. We’re helping pull up values in the neighborhood.”

Source: “Vulture Investors Flipping Their Ways to Big Profits,” CNNMoney.com (April 13, 2011)

Gov’t to Lenders: Pay Up for Foreclosure Errors

The nation’s largest banks reached a settlement with federal regulators, agreeing to compensate home owners who were wrongly foreclosed upon and to overhaul their operations.

The settlement also directed financial firms to hire auditors to determine if they improperly foreclosed on home owners in 2009 and 2010.

However, the settlement reached with federal regulators on Wednesday is hardly the end of punishment and investigation into banks’ shoddy lending practices and wrongful foreclosures, officials say. Officials warn fines will be determined later for the lenders and banking companies, which include Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup.

Wednesday’s settlement with banks was reached with three federal banking regulators: the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, and the Office of Thrift Supervision.

Banks still face settlement talks — which are believed to be even more stringent — with the 50 state attorneys general, the Treasury and Justice departments, the Federal Trade Commission, and the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This group has called for tougher measures, including detailed document procedures and even guidelines for modifying loans that include reducing the mortgage principal of struggling borrowers.

Banks continue to face investigations and punishments from abusive lending practices that plagued the industry, including probes that have revealed banks approved foreclosure paperwork without proper reviews, court filings that weren’t properly notarized, mortgage documents that weren’t transferred properly, and having inadequate staff to handle the foreclosure process.

Source: “14 Lenders and 2 Servicers to Reimburse Home Owners who Were Incorrectly Foreclosed Upon,” Associated Press (April 13, 2011) and “Mortgage Lenders Settle but Still Face Probe,” MSNBC.com (April 13, 2011)

Homeowners facing foreclosure about to win right to mediation

More homeowners in Washington state could get help avoiding unnecessary foreclosures under a bill awaiting Gov. Chris Gregoire’s signature.

The bill, the “Foreclosure Fairness Act,” would give distressed homeowners working with housing counselors or attorneys the right to in-person mediation with the bank or company servicing their mortgage. Consumer advocates expect Gregoire to sign the bill Thursday.

Washington, among the 27 states where court approval of foreclosures isn’t required, would become only the third state — after Nevada and Maryland — to adopt a foreclosure-mediation program in which a homeowner can seek to modify terms of their loan.

“There’s no silver bullet, but this will at least be a competent response to the irresponsibility of the financial industry,” said Bruce Neas, a Columbia Legal Services attorney who helped negotiate the bill.

State regulators, who receive hundreds of complaints each year against national mortgage servicers, have been stymied by federal rules that limit their power to intervene.

The only recourse for homeowners has been going to court, where they’re usually outmatched by servicers.

Also Wednesday, federal regulators announced they had ordered eight national banks — Bank of America, Citibank, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, MetLife Bank, PNC, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo — to hire an outside firm to review all foreclosure actions from 2009 to 2010 and submit a plan to remedy “all financial injury to borrowers caused by any errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies” identified by outside consultants.

The move by state lawmakers to require mediation comes as the foreclosure crisis in Washington continues. In the first three months of the year, more than 5,600 homes were seized and more than 7,000 were headed to foreclosure auction, according to RealtyTrac.

The bill before Gregoire also would provide an estimated $7.5 million for foreclosure-prevention efforts and more than double the number of housing counselors. Washington has just over 40.

“The real hope is that by adding the counselors, the banks and families would reach some kind of agreement before going to mediation,” said Kim Herman, executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

Under the proposed law, once a homeowner becomes delinquent, the servicer must send a letter asking the owner to contact the server and urging the person to call a housing counselor or attorney for help.

Homeowners who respond to the letter would be given 60 more days before the servicer could file a notice of default.

If the counselor or attorney couldn’t resolve the issue with the servicer, they could refer the homeowner to a mediator through the state Department of Commerce.

The Commerce Department selects the mediator, who must hold a session within 45 days. The homeowner and servicer share in the cost of the mediator’s fee, which can be up to $400.

If the mediator finds the servicer didn’t participate in good faith, a homeowner can use that to ask a court to stop the foreclosure. The state Attorney General’s Office also could pursue penalties against servicers.

When lawmakers opened negotiations on the bill, consumer advocates were surprised by the bankers’ first move.

Without prompting, the Washington Bankers Association offered to pay a $250 fee for every default notice filed, with the stipulation that 80 percent of the money pay for housing counselors.

“It did surprise people,” Herman said.

The association, which represents national and community banks, suggested the fee because it wants more delinquent homeowners to work with housing counselors, said James Pishue, the group’s president.

National studies show that homeowners who work with trained housing counselors have much higher success rates in reaching an agreement with their servicer.

“We thought that would prevent the need for mediation,” Pishue said. “Ultimately it results in fewer foreclosures.”

Marc Cote, a housing counselor who oversees the state’s foreclosure-prevention hotline, said he’s pleased with the measure.

“The main thing I’m hopeful for is that the mediation piece will inspire servicers to resolve the hundreds, in my experience, of [loan] workouts that are still not resolved after months and months.”

Source: Sanjay Bhatt, Seattle Times (April 13th, 2011)