How To Buy A Foreclosed Home

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in  How to Buy a Foreclosed Home. It opens,

As home prices soar in many cities, buyers might look to foreclosures as an affordable option for landing their dream home. Typically, a foreclosure occurs when a homeowner no longer can make the mortgage payments and the lender seizes the property. The lender then requires the former owner to vacate the property before offering it for sale, usually at a discounted price. In some cases, the home is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Foreclosures offer home shoppers the potential to score a great deal, says Elizabeth Mendenhall, a Realtor in Columbia, Missouri, who is president of the National Association of Realtors.

“Sometimes people think a foreclosure only happens to the lower end of the market, but you can definitely find foreclosures at any price range,” she says.

But while buying a foreclosure can save you a lot of cash, it does come with risks. If you pursue a foreclosure, it helps to have a “stomach of steel,” says David Reiss, law professor and academic programs director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
“There’s going to be a lot more ups and downs” than in a typical homebuying process, says Reiss, whose work focuses on real estate finance and community development.

Why Buy a Foreclosure?

In recent years, foreclosure sales have been trending downward, according to national property data curating company Attom Data Solutions. That is largely because a strengthening U.S. economy has reduced the number of borrowers who lose their homes as a result of failing to pay the mortgage. In 2017, distressed home sales – including foreclosures and short sales – made up 14 percent of all U.S. single family home and condo sales, according to Attom Data Solutions. That number was down from 15.5 percent in 2016 and a recent high of 38.6 percent in 2011.

Still, some buyers look to foreclosures to get the best possible deal. Homes may be for sale in various states of foreclosure. For example, pre-foreclosure is a period when the owner has fallen behind on payments, but the lender has not actually taken the home from the owner. Homes sold at this point often go through the short sale process, where the lender agrees to accept an amount of money from the buyer that is less than what the current owner owes on the mortgage.

Properties that are already in foreclosure are sold at an online or offline auction, or by a real estate agent. The biggest lure of buying a foreclosure is the potential savings you get compared with buying a similar nondistressed property.

“It can be like a 15 percent discount on your neighboring houses,” Reiss says. “So, it can be significant.”

But Mendenhall says how much you will save depends on the local real estate market and the stage of foreclosure of the property.

The Risks of Buying a Foreclosure

Purchasing a foreclosure involves several substantial risks, so buyers must enter the process with their eyes wide open. In many cases, if you buy a foreclosure at auction, you must purchase the property sight unseen. Reiss says this is the biggest potential danger of buying a foreclosure.

“The big, scary thing is that with a number of foreclosures, you can’t actually inspect the property before you actually bid,” he says. “That’s in part why the prices are below the market.”

Even if you can get a professional inspection on a foreclosure, you typically have to buy the house “as is.” Once you purchase the home, any problems that pop up are yours – as is the responsibility for finding and paying for a remedy. Such problems are more likely in a foreclosure than in a nondistressed property. For example, in some cases, a frustrated family might strip the home of valuable elements before vacating the house.

“Or they kind of just beat it up because they were angry about having to go through the foreclosure,” Reiss says.

The mere fact that the home is vacant also can lead to problems. Reiss says a home is like a plant – if you don’t tend to it regularly, it can wither and die. “If you happen to leave it alone on its own for too long, water leaks in, pipes can burst, rodents can get in, just the elements can do damage,” he says.

Mendenhall adds that people who lose their homes to foreclosure typically have major financial troubles. That can trigger other troubles for the new owner. “If the previous owner was in financial distress, there’s a chance that there’s more maintenance and work maybe that they haven’t completed,” she says.

Reducing the Dangers of Buying a Foreclosure

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risks associated with buying a foreclosure. For starters, see if you can get a professional inspection of the property. Although buyers often cannot inspect a foreclosure property, that is not always the case. So, be sure to ask a real estate agent or the seller about hiring a home inspector.

“Even though it may extend the process, if you can have a qualified inspector come in, you can know a little bit more about what you’re getting into,” Mendenhall says.

If you can’t inspect the property, Reiss recommends researching its history. Look at publicly available records to find out when the property was last sold and how long the current owner had possession. Also, check whether building permits were drawn and what type of work was done. “Maybe you’ll see some good news, like a boiler was replaced two years ago,” Reiss says. “Or maybe you’ll see some scary news, like there’s all these permits and you don’t know if the work was completed.”

Also, visit the house and perform a “curbside inspection” of your own, Reiss says. “Even if you can’t go inside the house, you want to look at the property,” he says. “If you can peek in the windows, you probably want to peek in the windows.”

Knock on the doors of nearby neighbors. Tell them you want to bid on the property but need to learn all that you can about the previous owners, including how long they lived in the home and whether they took care of it. And ask if there have been any signs of squatters or recent break-ins.

“Try to get all that information,” Reiss says. “Neighbors are probably going to have a good sense of a lot of that, and I think that kind of informal due diligence can be helpful.”

Working with a real estate agent experienced in selling distressed property may help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of buying foreclosures, Mendenhall says. Some agents have earned the National Association of Realtors’ Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource Certification, or SFR. Such Realtors can help guide you through processes unique to purchasing distressed properties, Mendenhall says.

How to Find a Foreclosure

You can find foreclosures by searching the listings at bank websites, including those of giants such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The government-sponsored companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also have listings on their websites.

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development owns and sells foreclosed homes. You can find listings on the website.

Private companies such as RealtyTrac offer foreclosure listings online, typically for a fee. Finally, you can contact a real estate agent who will find foreclosures for you. These agents may help you find foreclosures before others snatch them up.

Is a Foreclosure Right for You?

Before you pursue a foreclosure, Reiss encourages you to ask yourself whether you are in a good position to take on the risk – and, hopefully, to reap the reward – of buying a foreclosure. It is possible to use conventional financing, or even a loan from the Federal Housing Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs, to buy a foreclosure. However, people with deeper pockets are often better candidates for buying a foreclosure.

Because the process can be highly competitive, buyers with access to large amounts of cash can swoop in and land the best deals. “You can get financing, but you need to get it quickly,” Reiss says. “I think a lot of people who go into purchasing foreclosure(s) want to have the cash to just kind of act.”

Sellers of distressed properties love cash-only buyers, because the home can be sold without a lender requiring either a home appraisal or a home inspection. “So, the more cash you have on hand, the more likely you’re playing in those sandboxes,” Reiss says.

In addition, buyers of foreclosures often need to spend money to bring a property up to code or to make it competitive with other homes in the neighborhood. “Have a big cushion in case the building is in much worse condition than you expected,” Reiss says.

He cites the example of someone who buys a foreclosure, only to discover that the piping has been stripped out of the basement and will cost $10,000 to repair and replace. “You need to know that you can handle that one way or the other,” Reiss says.

People with solid home maintenance and repair skills also are good candidates for buying a foreclosure. “I think if you’re a handy person, you might be able to address a lot of the issues yourself,” Reiss says. He describes such buyers as anyone who has “a can-do attitude and is looking to trade sweat equity for home equity.”

Reiss and Mendenhall agree that flexibility is crucial to successfully shopping for and purchasing a foreclosure. Mendenhall notes that a foreclosure sale can take a long time to complete. “It can be a long process, or a frustrating one,” she says. “It can depend upon where they are in the foreclosure process. It can take a much longer time to go from contract to close.”

For that reason, a foreclosure might not make sense for buyers who need to move into a property quickly, she says. Also, think hard about how you really feel about buying a house that needs extensive renovation work that might take a long time to complete.

“It can be hard for some people to live in a property and do repairs at the same time,” Mendenhall says.

Clintons’ October Permitting Surprise

hand-stop-sign

Realtor.com quoted me in Final October Surprise: Clintons Make Untimely Mistake Renovating Their New Home. It opens,

This is proving to be the year that redefines the notion of the presidential campaigns’ “October Surprise.” First Donald Trump‘s hot mic/hot mess “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, followed by the ugly after affects. Then with just over a week to go before Election Day, Hillary Clinton‘s email woes returned, this time on Anthony Weiner‘s computer. Talk about lousy timing! Now, on the final day of October, one last surprise is rearing its head. Remember when the Clintons bought the home next door to their own in Chappaqua, NY, a few months back? Well, it turns out they renovated it without permits.

Breaking news alert!

According to public records, government officials received a complaint in early October about excavation happening at the Clintons’ new home. When an inspector arrived, he saw that a number of unpermitted upgrades were taking place, including a kitchen remodel and the installation of a new HVAC system.

Conspiracy theorists take note: Once the Clintons learned of this oversight, they took steps to fix it. And to be fair, the inspector on the case, William Maskiell, concedes that architects or contractors typically file for permits rather than the homeowners themselves. Still, he points out, “If you own the house, you’re responsible on everything that goes on with that house.”

In other words, the buck stops with the Clintons.

Granted, this blooper might seem small compared with the much larger problems on Hillary Clinton’s plate right now. Still, it can serve as an important lesson to all homeowners—many of whom might be tempted to sneakily sidestep those annoying permits before they start renovating. Honestly, are those little pieces of paperwork all that important?

It turns out they really are.

“I can’t believe a contractor working on a multimillion-dollar home wouldn’t pull permits,” says Mark Clements, a contractor at MyFixItUpLife.com. “It’s very much the contractor’s responsibility to gain those permits, and nearly unthinkably stupid not to.”

Here’s why: “On the surface, permits are inconvenient, but their value vastly outweighs what it takes to obtain them,” Clements explains. “They ensure everything from zoning variances to proper building practices are followed. And they make sure there is another set of expert eyes on the work being done, checking for everything from proper structure to code-approved electric to fire stops are safely installed.”

Once that’s done, a final inspection and certificate of occupancy, or “C of O,” is issued. The home may be reappraised—which could raise property taxes—”but it will also mean that when you list it for sale with three bathrooms, you can do so legally,” Clements adds.

A Stronger America, One Permit At A Time

So what’s the worst that could happen if you don’t bother with permits before you embark on a home improvement project? For one, if you’re caught, you could face fines.

“In some jurisdictions the penalties can be heavy, but it’s the stop-work order than can really hurt,” says David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and editor of REFinBlog.com. “Not only does it delay the completion of the work, but it may lead to additional costs from the contractor and subcontractors working on the project. And to top it off, it may interfere with the homeowners’ plans to leave their current home and move into their new one. The cascade effect among the affected parties can be painful.”

And even if you’ve already completed your renovation off the radar, you aren’t in the clear. If you decide to sell your home one day, unpermitted renovations can discourage buyers from biting—if they’re discovered.

“When buying a home, you always want to pay attention to any signs that there was unpermitted work done on the house,” says Reiss. “Is the certificate of occupancy for a one-family home, but there is a mother-in-law unit in the back? Are all of the houses on the block one story but your house is two stories? In such cases, you definitely want to dig a little deeper so you are not left holding the bag.”

REFinBlog has been nominated for the second year in a row for The Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Competition in the Education Category.  Please vote here if you like what you read.

LawProfs in MERS Litigation

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (through Max Weinstein et al.); Melanie Leslie, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; Joseph William Singer, Harvard Law School; Rebecca Tushnet, Georgetown University Law Center and I filed an amicus brief  (also on SSRN) in County of Montgomery Recorder v. MERSCorp Inc, et al. (3rd Cir. No. 14-4315). The brief argues,

MERS represents a major departure from and grave disruption of recording practices in counties such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, that have traditionally ensured the orderly transfer of real property across the country. Prior to MERS, records of real property interests were public, transparent, and provided a secure foundation upon which the American economy could grow. MERS is a privately run recording system created to reduce costs for large investment banks, the “sell-side” of the mortgage industry, which is largely inaccessible to the public. MERS is recorded as the mortgage holder in traditional county records, as a “nominee” for the holder of the mortgage note. Meanwhile, the promissory note secured by the mortgage is pooled, securitized, and transferred multiple times, but MERS does not require that its members enter these transfers into its database. MERS is a system that is “grafted” onto the traditional recording system and could not exist without it, but it usurps the function of county recorders and eviscerates the system recorders are charged with maintaining.

The MERS system was modeled after the Depository Trust Company (DTC), an institution created to hold corporate and municipal securities, but, unlike the DTC, MERS has no statutory basis, nor is it regulated by the SEC. MERS’s lack of statutory grounding and oversight means that it has neither legal authority nor public accountability. By allowing its members to transfer mortgages from MERS to themselves without any evidence of ownership, MERS dispensed with the traditional requirement that purported assignees prove their relationship to the mortgagee of record with a complete chain of mortgage assignments, in order to foreclose. MERS thereby eliminated the rules that protected the rights of mortgage holders and homeowners. Surveys, government audits, reporting by public media, and court cases from across the country have revealed that MERS’s records are inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable. Moreover, because MERS does not allow public access to its records, the full extent of its system’s destruction of chains of title and the clarity of entitlements to real property is not yet known.

Electronic and paper recording systems alike can contain errors and inconsistencies. Electronic systems have the potential to increase the accessibility and accuracy of public records, but MERS has not done this. Rather, by making recording of mortgage assignments voluntary, and cloaking its system in secrecy, it has introduced unprecedented and perhaps irreparable levels of opacity, inaccuracy, and incompleteness, wreaking havoc on the local title recording systems that have existed in America since colonial times. (2-3)

Is Freddie the “Government” When It’s In Conservatorship?

Professor Dale Whitman posted a commentary on Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. v. Kelley, 2014 WL 4232687, Michigan Court of Appeals (No. 315082, rev. op., Aug. 26, 2014)  on the Dirt listserv:

This is a residential mortgage foreclosure case. The original foreclosure by CMI (CitiMortgage, apparently Freddie Mac’s servicer) was by “advertisement” – i.e., pursuant to the Michigan nonjudicial foreclosure statute. Freddie was the successful bidder at the foreclosure sale. In a subsequent action to evict the borrowers, they raised two defenses.

Their first defense was based on the argument that, even though Freddie Mac was concededly a nongovernmental entity prior to it’s being placed into conservatorship in 2008 (see American Bankers Mortgage Corp v. Fed Home Loan Mortgage Corp, 75 F3d 1401, 1406–1409 (9th Cir. 1996)), it had become a federal agency by virtue of the conservatorship with FHFA as conservator. As such, it was required to comply with Due Process in foreclosing, and the borrowers argued that the Michigan nonjudicial foreclosure procedure did not afford due process.

The court rejected this argument, as has every court that has considered it. The test for federal agency status is found in Lebron v. Nat’l Railroad Passenger Corp, 513 U.S. 374, 377; 115 S Ct 961; 130 L.Ed.2d 902 (1995), which involved Amtrak. Amtrak was found to be a governmental body, in part because the control of the government was permanent. The court noted, however, that FHFA’s control of Freddie, while open-ended and continuing, was not intended to be permanent. Hence, Freddie was not a governmental entity and was not required to conform to Due Process standards in foreclosing mortgages. This may seem overly simplistic, but that’s the way the court analyzed it.

There’s no surprise here. For other cases reaching the same result, see U.S. ex rel. Adams v. Wells Fargo Bank Nat. Ass’n, 2013 WL 6506732 (D. Nev. 2013) (in light of the GSEs’ lack of federal instrumentality status while in conservatorship, homeowners who failed to pay association dues to the GSEs could not be charged with violating the federal False Claims Act); Herron v. Fannie Mae, 857 F. Supp. 2d 87 (D.D.C. 2012) (Fannie Mae, while in conservatorship, is not a federal agency for purposes of a wrongful discharge claim); In re Kapla, 485 B.R. 136 (Bankr. E.D. Mich. 2012), aff’d, 2014 WL 346019 (E.D. Mich. 2014) (Fannie Mae, while in conservatorship, is not a “governmental actor” subject to Due Process Clause for purposes of foreclosure); May v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 2013 WL 3207511 (S.D. Tex. 2013) (same); In re Hermiz, 2013 WL 3353928 (E.D. Mich. 2013) (same, Freddie Mac).

There’s a potential issue that the court didn’t ever reach. Assume that a purely federal agency holds a mortgage, and transfers it to its servicer (a private entity) to foreclose. Does Due Process apply? The agency is still calling the shots, but the private servicer is the party whose name is on the foreclosure. Don’t you think that’s an interesting question?

The borrowers’ second defense was that Michigan statutes require a recorded chain of mortgage assignments in order to foreclose nonjudicially. See Mich. Comp. L. 600.3204(3). In this case the mortgage had been held by ABN-AMRO, which had been merged with CMI (CitiMortgage), the foreclosing entity. No assignment of the mortgage had been recorded in connection with the merger. However, the court was not impressed with this argument either. It noted that the Michigan Supreme Court in Kim v JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA, 493 Mich 98, 115-116; 825 NW2d 329 (2012), had stated

to set aside the foreclosure sale, plaintiffs must show that they were prejudiced by defendant’s failure to comply with MCL 600.3204. To demonstrate such prejudice, they must show they would have been in a better position to preserve their interest in the property absent defendant’s noncompliance with the statute.

The court found that the borrowers were not prejudiced by the failure to record an assignment in connection with the corporate merger, and hence could not set the sale aside.

But this holding raises an interesting issue: When is failure to record a mortgage assignment ever prejudicial to the borrower? One can conceive of such a case, but it’s pretty improbable. Suppose the borrowers want to seek a loan modification, and to do so, check the public records in Michigan to find out to whom their loan has been assigned. However, no assignment is recorded, and when they check with the originating lender, they are stonewalled. Are they prejudiced?

Well, not if it’s a MERS loan, since they can quickly find out who holds the loan by querying the MERS web site. (True, the MERS records might possibly be wrong, but they’re correct in the vast majority of cases.) And then there’s the fact that federal law requires written, mailed notification to the borrowers of both any change in servicing and any sale of the loan itself. If they received these notices (which are mandatory), there’s no prejudice to them in not being able to find the same information in the county real estate records.

So one can postulate a case in which failure to record an assignment is prejudicial to the borrowers, but it’s extremely improbable. The truth is that checking the public records is a terrible way to find out who holds your loan. Moreover, Michigan requires recording of assignments only for a nonjudicial foreclosure; a person with the right to enforce the promissory note can foreclose the mortgage judicially whether there’s a chain of assignments or not.

All in all, the statutory requirement to record a chain of assignments is pretty meaningless to everybody involved – a fact that the Michigan courts recognize implicitly by their requirement that the borrower show prejudice in order to set a foreclosure sale aside on this ground.