Foreclosure Alternatives


Realtor.com quoted me in 3 Foreclosure Alternatives: What to Do Before Your Mortgage Goes Underwater. It opens,

Maybe you’ve missed a couple of monthly mortgage payments. Maybe a notice of default from your lender is looming right now. You understand the severity of the situation, but what most homeowners don’t know is that foreclosure is not the only option you have when you’re no longer able to afford your house.

The first step for anyone in risk of foreclosure is to get in contact with your lender. This shows that you are aware of the problem and committed to finding a solution—and trust us, that will go a long way. The earlier you reach out, the greater shot you have of amicably rectifying the problem.

After you speak with your lender, your lender will lay out your options, including the foreclosure alternatives that you might be able to take advantage of. Let’s take a closer look at some of the alternatives so you—and your credit history—don’t suffer the ultimate blow.

1. Standard sale or rental

If your home is currently valued at more than you owe and if you are up to date on your mortgage payments (but you anticipate that paying your mortgage could become a problem), you can hold out as long as possible for a buyer.

You can also try to rent out the home to cover the mortgage payments until the house sells, says Carolyn Rae Cole, a Realtor® with Nourmand & Associates. In the end, virtually all homes eventually sell—it’s just about pricing.

2. Short sale

When a home has fallen in value and is priced so low that there isn’t enough equity to cover the mortgage, you might have the option to conduct a short sale. It’s also known as going “underwater.” This means the lender agrees to accept less than the amount the borrower owes through a sale of the property to a third party.

A short sale works like this: A specialist brokers a deal with the mortgage lender to sell the home for whatever the market will bear. If the amount of the sale is for less than what’s owed on the mortgage, the lender gets the money from the sale and relinquishes the remaining debt. (This means you won’t owe anything else.) In a short sale, the lender usually pays for the seller’s closing costs. A traditional sale takes about 30 to 45 days to close after the offer is accepted, whereas a short sale can take 90 to 120 days, sometimes even longer.

Sellers will need to prove hardship—like a loss of primary income or death of a spouse—to their lender. In addition to explaining why they’re unable to make mortgage payments, sellers will have to provide supporting financial documents to the lender to consider for a short sale.

3. Deed in lieu of foreclosure agreement

A deed in lieu of foreclosure is a transaction between a lender and borrower that effectively ends a home loan. Essentially both parties agree to avoid a lengthy foreclosure proceeding by the borrower voluntarily turning over the home’s deed to a lender, says professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School
. The lender then releases the borrower from any further liability relating to the mortgage. However, if the property is worth significantly less than the outstanding mortgage, the lender may require the borrower to pay a portion of the remaining loan balance.

You might be eligible for a deed in lieu if you’re experiencing financial hardship, can’t afford your current mortgage payment, and were unable to sell your property at fair market value for at least 90 days.

Bottom line: This agreement is a negotiated solution to a bad situation—borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments are going to lose their house and the lender is not getting paid back in full.

Easy Money From Fannie Mae

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted me in Fannie Mae Making It Easier to Spend Half Your Income on Debt. It reads in part,

Fannie Mae is making it easier for some borrowers to spend up to half of their monthly pretax income on mortgage and other debt payments. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

“Generally, it’s a pretty poor idea,” said Holly Gillian Kindel, an adviser with Mosaic Financial Partners. “It flies in the face of common financial wisdom and best practices.”

Fannie is a government agency that can buy or insure mortgages that meet its underwriting criteria. Effective July 29, its automated underwriting software will approve loans with debt-to-income ratios as high as 50 percent without “additional compensating factors.” The current limit is 45 percent.

Fannie has been approving borrowers with ratios between 45 and 50 percent if they had compensating factors, such as a down payment of least 20 percent and at least 12 months worth of “reserves” in bank and investment accounts. Its updated software will not require those compensating factors.

Fannie made the decision after analyzing many years of payment history on loans between 45 and 50 percent. It said the change will increase the percentage of loans it approves, but it would not say by how much.

That doesn’t mean every Fannie-backed loan can go up 50 percent. Borrowers still must have the right combination of loan-to-value ratio, credit history, reserves and other factors. In a statement, Fannie said the change is “consistent with our commitment to sustainable homeownership and with the safe and sound operation of our business.”

Before the mortgage meltdown, Fannie was approving loans with even higher debt ratios. But 50 percent of pretax income is still a lot to spend on housing and other debt.

The U.S. Census Bureau says households that spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing are “cost-burdened” and those that spend 50 percent or more are “severely cost burdened.”

The Dodd-Frank Act, designed to prevent another financial crisis, authorized the creation of a “qualified mortgage.” These mortgages can’t have certain risky features, such as interest-only payments, terms longer than 30 years or debt-to-income ratios higher than 43 percent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said a 43 percent limit would “protect consumers” and “generally safeguard affordability.”

However, loans that are eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and other government agencies are deemed qualified mortgages, even if they allow ratios higher than 43 percent. Freddie Mac, Fannie’s smaller sibling, has been backing loans with ratios up to 50 percent without compensating factors since 2011. The Federal Housing Administration approves loans with ratios up to 57 percent, said Ed Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute Center on Housing Risk.

Since 2014, lenders that make qualified mortgages can’t be sued if they go bad, so most lenders have essentially stopped making non-qualified mortgages.

Lenders are reluctant to make jumbo loans with ratios higher than 43 percent because they would not get the legal protection afforded qualified mortgages. Jumbos are loans that are too big to be purchased by Fannie and Freddie. Their limit in most parts of the Bay Area is $636,150 for one-unit homes.

Fannie’s move comes at a time when consumer debt is soaring. Credit card debt surpassed $1 trillion in December for the first time since the recession and now stands behind auto loans ($1.1 trillion) and student loans ($1.4 trillion), according to the Federal Reserve.

That’s making it harder for people to get or refinance a mortgage. In April, Fannie announced three small steps it was taking to make it easier for people with education loans to get a mortgage.

Some consumer groups are happy to see Fannie raising its debt limit to 50 percent. “I think there are enough other standards built into the Fannie Mae underwriting system where this is not going to lead to predatory loans,” said Geoff Walsh, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, said, “There are households that can afford these loans, including moderate-income households.” When they are carefully underwritten and fully documented “they can perform at that level.” He pointed out that a lot of tenants are managing to pay at least 50 percent of income on rent.

A new study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University noted that 10 percent of homeowners and 25.5 percent of renters are spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing.

When Fannie calculates debt-to-income ratios, it starts with the monthly payment on the new loan (including principal, interest, property tax, homeowners association dues, homeowners insurance and private mortgage insurance). Then it adds the monthly payment on credit cards (minimum payment due), auto, student and other loans and alimony.

It divides this total debt by total monthly income. It will consider a wide range of income that is stable and verifiable including wages, bonuses, commissions, pensions, investments, alimony, disability, unemployment and public assistance.

Fannie figures a creditworthy borrower with $10,000 in monthly income could spend up to $5,000 on mortgage and debt payments. Not everyone agrees.

“If you have a debt ratio that high, the last thing you should be doing is buying a house. You are stretching yourself way too thin,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst with Bankrate.com.

*     *     *

“If this is data-driven as Fannie says, I guess it’s OK,” said David Reiss, who teaches real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. “People can make decisions themselves. We have these rules for the median person. A lot of immigrant families have no problem spending 60 or 70 percent (of income) on housing. They have cousins living there, they rent out a room.”

Reiss added that homeownership rates are low and expanding them “seems reasonable.” But making credit looser “will probably drive up housing prices.”

The article condensed my comments, but they do reflect the fact that the credit box is too tight and that there is room to loosen it up a bit. The Qualified Mortgage and Ability-to-Repay rules promote the 43% debt-to-income ratio because they provide good guidance for “traditional” nuclear American families.  But there are American households where multigenerational living is the norm, as is the case with many families of recent immigrants. These households may have income streams which are not reflected in the mortgage application.

Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

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The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

Contract Selling Is Back, Big-Time

The Chicago Reader quoted me in The Infamous Practice of Contract Selling Is Back in Chicago. It reads, in part,

When Carolyn Smith saw a for sale sign go up on her block one evening in the fall of 2011, it felt serendipitous. The now 68-year-old was anxiously looking for a new place to live. The landlord of her four-unit apartment building in the city’s Austin neighborhood was in foreclosure and had stopped paying the water bill. That month, she and the other tenants had finally scraped together the money themselves to prevent a shutoff and were planning to withhold rent until the landlord paid them back. Exhausted with this process and tired of dealing with “slumlords,” Smith wanted to buy a home in the neighborhood to ensure that she, her mother, Gwendolyn, and their dog, Sugar Baby, would have a stable place to live. But due to a past bankruptcy, Smith thought she would never be able to get a mortgage. So when she saw a house on her street for sale with a sign that said “owner financing,” she was excited. The next morning, she called the number listed and learned that the down payment was just $900—a sum she could fathom paying. “I figured I was blessed,” she says.

Her good fortune continued. A man on the other end of the line told her she was the very first one to inquire. The seller, South Carolina-based National Asset Advisors, called her several more times and mailed her paperwork to sign. Smith says she never met in person with anyone from National Asset Advisors or Harbour Portfolio Advisors, the Texas-based company that owned the home. But she says the agents she spoke with assured her that her credit was good enough for the transaction, despite the past bankruptcy. Next, they gave her a key code that allowed her to go in and look at the house, explaining that she’d be purchasing it “as is.” Smith thought the two-flat looked like a fixer-upper—the door had been damaged in an apparent break-in, and there was no hot-water heater, furnace, or kitchen sink—but given her poor luck with apartments of late, she felt she couldn’t pass up the chance to own a home. Both she and her mother, now 84, had been renting their whole lives; after pulling together the down payment, they beamed with pride when, in December 2011, they received a letter from National Asset Advisors that read “Congratulations on your purchase of your new home!”

But within a year, Smith discovered that the house was in even worse shape than she’d realized. In her first months in her new home, Smith estimates that she spent more than $4,000 just to get the heat and running water working properly, drinking bottled water in the meantime. Then the chimney started to crumble. Smith would hear the periodic thud of stray bricks tumbling into the alleyway as she sat in her living room or lay in bed at night; she began to worry that a passerby would be hit in the head and soon spent another $2,000 to replace the chimney. Public records show that the house had sat vacant earlier that year, and the city had ordered its previous owners to make extensive repairs.

Had Smith approached a bank for a mortgage, she likely would’ve received a Federal Housing Administration-issued form advising her to get a home inspection before buying. But as far as she recalls, no one she spoke to ever suggested one, and in her rush to get out of her old apartment, she didn’t think to insist.

The documents Smith signed with Harbour and National Asset Advisors required her to bring the property into habitable condition within four months, and with all the unexpected expenses, she soon fell behind on her monthly payments of $545.

Smith’s retirement from her job as an adult educator at Malcolm X College, in the spring of 2013, compounded the financial strain. Living on a fixed income of what she estimates was around $1,100 a month in pension and social security payments, she fell further behind, and the stress mounted.

“When we got to be two months behind, they would call me every day,” she remembers.

National Asset Advisors also began sending her letters threatening to evict her. That’s when Smith had a heart-stopping realization: She hadn’t actually purchased her home at all. The document she had signed wasn’t a traditional mortgage, as she had believed, but a “contract for deed”—a type of seller-financed transaction under which buyers lack any equity in the property until they’ve paid for it in full. Since Smith didn’t actually have a deed to the house, or any of the rights typically afforded home owners, she and her mother could be thrown out without a foreclosure process, forfeiting the thousands of dollars they’d already spent to rehabilitate the home.

“I know people always say ‘buyer beware’ ” she acknowledges. “But I’d never had a mortgage before, and I feel like they took advantage of that.”

What felt like a private nightmare for Smith has been playing out nationwide in the wake of the housing market crash, as investment firms step in to fill a void left by banks, now focused on lending to wealthier borrowers with spotless credit histories. In a tight credit market, companies like Harbour, which has purchased roughly 7,000 homes nationwide since 2010, including at least 42 in Cook County, purport to offer another shot at home ownership for those who can’t get mortgages. Such practices are increasingly common in struggling cities hard hit by the housing crash. A February 2016 article in the New York Times titled “Market for Fixer-Uppers Traps Low-Income Buyers” examined Harbour’s contract-for-deed sales in Akron, Ohio, and Battle Creek, Michigan. The Detroit News has reported that in 2015 the number of homes sold through contract-for-deed agreements in the city exceeded those sold through traditional mortgages.

*     *     *

Contract-for-deed sales also offered an attractive loophole from the growing set of regulations on traditional mortgages following the financial crisis. “In the same way that you saw [subprime lenders like] Countrywide get really big in the late 1990s,” says David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, “one of the real attractions for the businesses operating in this space is that they are underregulated.”

Who’s a Predatory Lender?

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in 5 Clues That You’re Dealing with a Predatory Lender.  It opens,

Consumers are often told to stay away from predatory lenders, but the problem with that advice is a predatory lender doesn’t advertise itself as such.

Fortunately, if you’re on guard, you should be able to spot the signs that will let you know a loan is bad news. If you’re afraid you’re about to sign your life away on a dotted line, watch for these clues first.

You’re being offered credit, even though your credit score and history are terrible. This is probably the biggest red flag there is, according to John Breyault, the vice president for public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a private nonprofit advocacy group in the District of Columbia.

“A lender is in business because they think they’re going to get paid back,” Breyault says. “So if they aren’t checking to see if you have the ability to pay them back, by doing a credit check, then they’re planning on getting their bank through a different way, like offering a high fee for the loan and setting it up in a way that locks you into a cycle of debt that is very difficult to get out of.”

But, of course, as big of a clue as this is to stay away, it can be hard to listen to your inner voice of reason. After all, if nowhere else will give you a loan, you may decide to work with the predatory lender anyway. That’s why many industry experts feel that even if a bad loan is transparent about how bad it is, it probably shouldn’t exist. After all, only consumers who are desperate for cash are likely to take a gamble that they can pay back a loan with 200 percent interest – and get through it unscathed.

Your loan has an insanely high interest rate. Most states have usury laws preventing interest rates from going into that 200 APR territory, but the laws are generally weak, industry experts say, and lenders get around them all the time. So you can’t assume an interest rate that seems really high is considered normal or even within the parameters of the law. After all, attorney generals successfully sue payday loan services and other lending companies fairly frequently. For instance, in January of this year, it was announced that after the District of Columbia attorney general sued the lending company CashCall, they settled for millions of dollars. According to media reports, CashCall was accused of offering loans with interest rates around 300 percent annually.

The lender is making promises that seem too good to be true. If you’re asking questions and getting answers that are making you sigh with relief, that could be a problem.

Nobody’s suggesting you be a cynic and assume everybody’s out to get you, but you should scrutinize your paperwork, says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

“Often predators will make all sorts of oral promises, but when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, their documents don’t match the promises,” Reiss says.

And if they aren’t in sync, assume the documentation is correct. Do not go with what the lender told you.

“Courts will, in all likelihood, hold you to the promises you made in the signed documents, and your testimony about oral promises probably won’t hold that much water,” Reiss says. ” Read what you are signing and make sure it matches up with your understanding of the transaction.”

Subprime v. Non-Prime

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The Kroll Bond Rating Agency has issued an RMBS Research report, Credit Evolution: Non-Prime Isn’t Yesterday’s Subprime. It opens,

Following the private label RMBS market’s peak in 2007 and the ensuing credit crisis, non-agency securitizations of newly originated collateral have focused almost exclusively on prime jumbo loans. This is not surprising given the poor performance of loosely underwritten residential mortgage loans that characterized certain vintages leading up to the crisis. While legacy prime, in absolute terms, performed better than Alt-A and subprime collateral, it was apparent that origination practices had a significant impact on subsequent loan performance across product types.

Many consumers were caught in the ensuing waves of defaults, which marred their borrowing records in a manner that has either barred them from accessing housing credit, or at best made it extremely challenging to obtain a home loan. Others that managed to meet their obligations have been unable to qualify for new loans in the post-crisis era due to tighter credit standards that have been influenced by regulation.

The private label securitization market has not met the needs of these consumers for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, reputational concerns in the aftermath of the crisis, regulatory costs, investor appetite, and the time needed for borrowers to repair their credit. The tide appears to be turning quickly, however, and Kroll Bond Rating Agency (KBRA) has observed the re-emergence of more than a dozen non-prime mortgage origination programs that intend to use securitization as a funding source. Of these, KBRA is aware of at least four securitization sponsors that have accessed the PLS market across nine issuances, two of which include rated offerings.

Thus far, KBRA has observed that today’s non-prime programs are not a simple rebranding of pre-crisis subprime origination, nor do they signal a return to the documentation excesses associated with “liar loans”. While the asset class is meant to serve those with less pristine credit, and can even have characteristics reminiscent of legacy Alt-A, it is expansive, and underwriting practices have been heavily influenced by today’s consumer-focused regulatory environment and government-sponsored entity (GSE) origination guidelines. In evaluating these new non-prime programs, KBRA believes market participants should consider the following factors:

■ Loans originated under sound compliance with Ability-To-Repay (ATR) rules should outperform 2005-2007 vintage loans with similar credit parameters, including LTV and borrower FICO scores. The ATR rules have resulted in strengthened underwriting, which should bode well for originations across the MBS space. This is particularly true of non-prime loans, where differences in origination practices can have a greater influence on future loan performance.

■ Loans that fail to adhere to GSE guidelines regarding the seasoning of credit dispositions (e.g. bankruptcy, foreclosure, etc.) on a borrower’s credit history should be viewed as having increased credit risk relative to those with similar credit profiles that lack recent disposition activity. This relationship likely depends on, among other things, equity position, current FICO score, and the likelihood that any life events relating to the prior credit issue remain unresolved.

■ Alternative documentation programs need to viewed with skepticism as they relate to the ATR rules, particularly those that serve borrowers with sub-prime credit histories. Although many programs will meet technical requirements for income verification, it is also important to demonstrate good faith in determining a borrower’s ability-to-repay. Failure to do so may not only result in poor credit performance, but increased risk of assignee liability.

■ Investor programs underwritten with reliance on expected rental income and limited documentation may pose more risk relative to fully documented investor loans where the borrower’s income and debt profile are considered, all else equal. (1, footnotes omitted)

I think KBRS is documenting a positive trend: looser credit for those with less-than-prime credit is overdue. I also think that KBRS’ concerns about the development of the non-prime market should be heeded — ensuring that borrowers have the ability to repay their mortgages should be job No. 1 for originators (although it seems ridiculous that one would have to say that). We want a mortgage market that serves everyone who is capable of making their mortgage payments for the long term. These developments in the non-prime market are most welcome and a bit overdue.