‘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)

Advertisements

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.

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

Improving job market ignites sharp rise in apartment rents

Apartment rents are rising at their fastest pace in years as the U.S. economy creates jobs and spurs demand for rental housing.

Nationwide, rents started edging up last year after several years of little growth or even declines, market researcher Reis says. It predicts apartment rents will jump 4.3% this year, marking the biggest annual increase in four years. MPF Research, which also monitors apartment rents, expects them to rise more than 5% this year, says Greg Willett, MPF Research vice president.

Job growth is driving much of the increase. As more people get jobs, people who doubled up in homes during the recession, especially younger workers, move out on their own, says Ryan Severino, Reis senior economist. Many of those workers are choosing to rent rather than to buy, because of dropping U.S. home values and tight lending standards that make it harder to buy homes, Severino says.

Lack of construction is also helping rents. This year, just 40,000 new apartment units are expected to be added to the U.S. supply, Reis says. That’s down from about 130,000 new units each year for much of the past decade.

Apartments make up about half the nation’s rental supply, Willett says. Single-family homes and condominiums account for the rest.

MPF and Reis both say San Jose and New York City are the strongest rental markets. In the first quarter, rents in those markets were up 4.6% and 4.4%, respectively, from the same period last year, Reis’ data show. Nationwide, rents rose not quite 2% from the first quarter of 2010 to the same quarter this year, Reis says. Vacancies fell 1.8 percentage points to 6.2%.

Other markets seeing first-quarter year-over-year rent increases in excess of 3% included suburban Virginia and Maryland; San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; and Denver, Reis says.

Real estate broker Richard Gonzalez of Realty World sees the market tightening in San Jose as homeowners who lose homes to foreclosure or short sales become renters. “They’re starting over and need to rent,” Gonzalez says.

Las Vegas was one of the few metropolitan areas in which rents fell in the first quarter, Reis and MPF say. They dropped almost 3% year-over-year.

Las Vegas has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, and investors are buying homes there and turning them into rentals. The city hasn’t seen apartment rents rise since the third quarter of 2008, Reis says.

Increasing demand and lack of new rental supply will boost rents for the next couple of years, predicts Paul Dales, economist at Capital Economics. Eventually, though, as rents rise and home prices drop, “homeownership becomes more valuable again,” says Jim O’Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global.

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)

New-Home Sales Gain Momentum

After three straight months of declines, sales of new homes got a boost last month, jumping 11 percent, according to the Commerce Department’s latest new-home sales report released Monday.

New-home sales rose in March to a seasonally adjusted rate of 300,000 homes, up from February’s 250,000. However, the number is still far from what economists view as a healthy 700,000-a-year pace for the sector.

The median price of a new home increased 3 percent from February to $213,800. New-home prices are about 34 percent higher than the median price of existing homes, according to economists.

Regionally, new-home sales saw the biggest boost in the Northeast, jumping nearly 67 percent in March. The West saw an increase in new-home sales last month by nearly 26 percent; the Midwest posted a 13 percent increase; and in the South, new-home sales dipped 0.6 percent.

The new-home market continues to be battered by a high number of foreclosures that continue to dampen home prices across the country. With 1.2 million foreclosures forecast this year, the new-home sales market may not see a major turnaround for years, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

However, while residential construction has decreased considerably in recent years, reports have recently shown building permits have increased 28 percent for apartment and condo buildings.

Source: “The number of people who bought new homes jumped 11 pct., but pace is far below healthy level,” Associated Press (April 25, 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)