‘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)

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)

Mortgages, foreclosures top agenda at BofA meeting

Foreclosures and home-mortgage modifications took center stage at Bank of America annual meeting last week.

Outside the headquarters of the nation’s largest bank, protesters held signs and gave testimonials about their own foreclosure experiences.

At the meeting, which was held inside the bank’s new 32-story building adjacent to its headquarters, shareholders confronted CEO Brian Moynihan about mortgage woes in their communities.

The Rev. Clyde Ellis, a pastor from Virginia, said Bank of America should take responsibility for its role in the foreclosure crisis.

“Come to Prince William County and I will show you disaster,” Ellis said.

Losses and litigation related to foreclosures and poorly written mortgages have haunted Bank of America for several quarters. In its latest quarter, the bank’s income dropped 39 percent on higher costs related to mortgages and legal expenses.

At the end of the first quarter, the bank had $2 billion of foreclosed properties on its book, and its customers were late by 90 days or more on $24 billion of its total loans, which included commercial and residential properties.

Moynihan tried to separate the rest of the bank’s business from its mortgage woes. He described the company as being made up of two stories, with the mortgage business on one side and all its other business units on the other.

“The power of the franchise is held back by the mortgage challenges we face,” he said.

The bank’s stock is one of the worst performers of the S&P 500 index this year. Recently, the stock slid after the Federal Reserve rejected the bank’s capital plan and its request for a dividend increase.

BofA was the only bank among the country’s four largest that didn’t pass a stress test from the Fed. The central bank examined the 19 largest banks in the country to see if they were strong enough to withstand another economic downturn. BofA will submit a revised plan later this year.

Moynihan said the bank will pay dividends once it resolves more of its mortgage issues and submits a plan that is acceptable to regulators.

Some shareholders want the bank to scrutinize itself more closely. Michael Garland, who was representing several large public pension funds at the meeting, said he had written to BofA’s audit committee asking that it conduct an independent review of mortgages and foreclosures to show they conform with the laws.

Garland said that audit committees of other banks responded soon after he sent them a similar letter in January.

He said was disappointed that there had been no response from BofA’s audit committee until just five days before the annual meeting.

The plan didn’t get enough votes to pass on Wednesday.

“If this is your response to shareholders with a $1.3 billion stake in the company, I can only imagine how you treat your residential-mortgage customers,” said Garland, who was also representing the New York City Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the public pension funds of New York.

Source: By Pallavi Gogoi, Associated Press

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)

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)