Tuesday, April 13, 2010

BofA joins Citi in support of Judicial Mortgage Modification

Bank of America, the nation's largest lender and its biggest bank by assets, now supports changing the law to give federal judges the power to modify mortgages in bankruptcy.

The bank joins Citigroup, the nation's third-largest bank by assets, in supporting a change to existing law to give homeowners more leverage. Unlike other forms of debt, bankruptcy judges presently lack the power to change mortgage terms. The banking and home mortgage industry want to keep it that way -- by not allowing judges the authority to change the terms, troubled homeowners are at the mercy of their lenders. They take what they get.

But Tuesday, before a nearly-empty Congressional hearing room, Barbara J. Desoer, president of Bank of America Home Loans, said her bank now supports leveling that playing field.

"As we've gone through the lessons that we've learned with modifications and other programs, there probably is some segment of borrowers for whom that would be an appropriate alternative," Desoer said before the House Financial Services Committee.

"So you would support that in some circumstances?" asked Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) in a follow-up to his original question.

"In some circumstances, yeah," Desoer responded.

In December, the House failed to pass an amendment to its financial reform bill that would have given judges this authority, despite the fact that it passed the chamber the previous March. The Senate defeated it the next month after banks and mortgage lenders of all sizes mobilized to kill the measure.

Bank of America, though, is the nation's largest lender and servicer of home mortgages. Desoer oversees a home mortgage unit that accounts for "about 20 percent of the U.S. mortgage origination market, with a $2 trillion servicing portfolio serving nearly 14 million customer loans," according to the bank's website.

Its support now gives homeowner advocates in Congress added ammunition to pressure lenders to either do more to give distressed homeowners sustainable mortgage modifications, or to threaten the rest of the mortgage industry with the possibility of reintroducing a bill that would allow federal judges the authority to unilaterally do it on their own.

Citigroup supported the change last year as Congress debated the proposal. Its position has not changed, bank spokeswoman Molly Meiners told the Huffington Post. Together, Bank of America and Citigroup hold a combined $4 trillion in assets, according to regulatory filings with the Federal Reserve.

After Desoer appeared to qualify her support, committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who supports giving judges the authority to treat home mortgages like other forms of consumer debt, interjected in hopes of getting additional clarification.

"Obviously the law would have to be modified to allow that circumstance," he said. "We should make clear that we can't change the bankruptcy law obviously case by case, so it would have to be an [inaudible] change."

Miller then asked a follow-up question.

"You would support a legislative change in the bankruptcy law to allow the modification of home mortgages in bankruptcy?" he asked Desoer.

"Yes," she replied. "And I believe that there is a segment of borrowers for whom that is the appropriate alternative, subject to them having gone through qualification for HAMP, or something like that, and failed." HAMP refers to the administration's main foreclosure-prevention initiative, the Home Affordable Modification Program.

"There is a segment of borrowers for whom that might be an appropriate alternative, yes," Desoer added.

In an interview after the hearing, Frank told HuffPost that Bank of America's new position was "encouraging."

"We may be able to reopen that," Frank said. "And of course, Citi stayed with it. We now have two of the four [biggest banks in the country]" supporting judicial mortgage modifications.

Frank added that he would tell the House Judiciary Committee about Bank of America's now-public position. Judiciary has jurisdiction over bankruptcy law, he said.

"Maybe we can revisit this," Frank said.

Odds are slim. Banks still wield tremendous influence in the Capitol.

"I'm not confident. I'm hopeful," said Frank. "Look, you've got the credit unions, the community banks -- people tend to overestimate the importance of the big banks. Frankly, it's the smaller entities that have more political clout, and I don't see that this has moved us elsewhere. It's helpful, but it's not conclusive."

The panel was quickly reminded that Bank of America and Citi were alone in their support for homeowners.

Mike Heid, co-president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, butted in after Desoer finished responding to Miller, and added his two cents:

"I think you'd have to ask yourself whether a change in bankruptcy law is really the best way -- and the fastest way -- to achieve assistance for homeowners. I think there's other alternatives," Heid said in a response to a question that wasn't asked of him.

Miller quickly retorted, "We're trying to do other alternatives now, and have been for three years, and without much to show for it."

Last year lenders foreclosed on more than 2.8 million homes, according to real estate research firm RealtyTrac. The firm estimates three million homes will get foreclosure notices this year; more than one million of them will be repossessed by lenders

Monday, April 5, 2010

Gov't expands assistance for homeowners with property values under their mortgages

The government launched a new effort on Monday to speed up the time-consuming, often-frustrating process of selling your home if you owe more than it's worth.

The Obama administration will give $3,000 for moving expenses to homeowners who complete such a sale -- known as a short sale -- or agree to turn over the deed of the property to the lender. It's designed for homeowners who are in financial trouble but don't qualify for the administration's $75 billion mortgage modification program.

Owners will still lose their homes, but a short sale or deed in lieu of foreclosure doesn't hurt a borrower's credit score for as much time as a foreclosure. For lenders, a home usually fetches more money in a short sale than a foreclosure. And the bank avoids expensive legal bills, cleanup fees and maintenance costs that follow a foreclosure.

"It's very traumatic and embarrassing and frustrating to go through a foreclosure," said Laurie Maggiano, policy director of the Treasury Department's homeownership preservation office. With a short sale, she said, "your financial issues are your own problem and not neighborhood conversation."

Falling home prices and lost jobs have forced many sellers into this position. For example, in Orange County, Calif., short sales made up about 26 percent of the market in March, compared with 17 percent a year earlier, according to data complied by Altera Real Estate, a local brokerage. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, about 12 percent of all deals since October were short sales, up from about 8 percent a year earlier, according to the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors.

The expanded incentives will help accelerate short sales, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. He expects 350,000 homeowners nationwide to use the program through the end of 2012, more than double his earlier forecast.

For buyers, though, short sales can be a great opportunity.

Along with the financial incentives, the new government program makes another key change. Mortgage companies will have to set their minimum bid before the house is listed for sale. If the offer is above that, the lender must accept it.

That's a big change from current practice. Lenders generally don't calculate how much money they are willing to accept on a short sale until they have an offer in hand, causing long delays before the sale is approved.

The new program "will give us a degree of efficiency that we have not had in the past," said Matt Vernon, Bank of America's executive in charge of short sales and foreclosed properties.

Under the new process, buyers who submit an offer to purchase a home in a short sale should get a response within two weeks, as opposed to months. If that happens as planned, it would be a big improvement. Real estate agents across the country have complained that lenders are often difficult to reach, sometimes only communicating by e-mail and infrequently at that.

Some real estate agents who specialize in short sales are optimistic. Most borrowers in Las Vegas, owe so much more on their mortgages than their properties are worth they can't qualify for a loan modification.

The Treasury Department outlined the plan last November, but doubled the original $1,500 in relocation money after realizing that many homeowners need more cash to move out. That's because landlords usually want large deposits from people whose credit records have gone sour after missing mortgage payments.

However, there are plenty of restrictions. To qualify, the home needs to be a borrower's primary residence. Homeowners either have to be behind on their mortgages or on the verge of becoming delinquent.

Currently, the program is not available for mortgages owned or guaranteed by mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, though the two government-controlled companies will soon follow suit, said the Treasury's Maggiano.