Foreclosure backlogs taking longer to process

On a recent morning at the county courthouse here, retired circuit court judge Wayne Cobb surveyed the hundreds of files stacked before him, each a foreclosure case waiting to be finalized, dismissed or delayed.

“We’re jammed up,” he said.

That logjam won’t fade soon. Funding for Florida’s “rocket docket,” which allowed the state’s courts to hire additional staff and bring back retired judges to plow through its foreclosure backlog — but raised questions about fairness for homeowners — ended Thursday. That leaves fewer people and less money to tackle the state’s 300,000 lingering foreclosure cases, with more on the way.

But Florida is far from alone.

Across the country, states are wrestling with mounting foreclosure backlogs, exacerbated by borrowers who continue to fall behind on their mortgages. That has left the housing market languishing long after the financial crisis, and it has hindered the nation’s broader economic recovery.

“Housing has always led the way . . . and it’s just not doing that,” said Christopher Mayer, a professor of real estate at Columbia Business School in New York. “It’s very hard to imagine the economy’s really going to pick up without housing doing more.”

Skepticism about the prospects for a quick housing recovery seems warranted, given recent numbers.

According to the real estate data firm LPS Applied Analytics, more than 2 million home loans across the country are in foreclosure, and nearly 2 million more are more than 90 days delinquent. Of those borrowers who are more than three months behind on their mortgages, more than 40 percent have not made a payment in more than a year.

“What all this is saying,” said Herb Blecher, an LPS senior vice president, “is that unless things change in a very big way, this is going to go on for a very long time.”

In addition, the amount of time it takes to foreclose on a home — particularly in the 23 states that require court approval — has continued to grow longer, according to data from RealtyTrac.

In early 2007, it took less than six months on average to complete a foreclosure proceeding in Florida. Four years later, it takes an average of 619 days. In New York, it now takes 924 days to foreclose, up from 263. In New Jersey, it takes 908 days, up from 297. Foreclosure timelines also have grown in Maryland and Virginia, though less drastically. Nationwide, the time that it takes to complete a foreclosure has more than doubled, to an average of 400 days.

“There have been several things that have intervened in the foreclosure process to delay it and slow it down,” said RealtyTrac’s communications director, Daren Blomquist.

For starters, the number of new cases has fallen dramatically since the fall, when several major banks halted new foreclosures after revelations of widespread paperwork problems that led to questions over who exactly owned the properties being foreclosed upon. Much of the controversy focused on “robo-signing,” in which employees signed someone else’s name on affidavits or did not verify the facts they were attesting to.

That scandal prompted ongoing state and federal investigations and embroiled some of the country’s largest banks in multibillion-dollar settlement negotiations that have yet to be resolved. More homeowners facing foreclosure began to challenge the legitimacy of the cases against them, and some judges are looking at foreclosure filings with increased scrutiny.

Various states also have put in place rules that have slowed the foreclosure process further. In a handful of states, such as Connecticut and New York, lenders are now required to meet with borrowers as part of a mediation effort to prevent avoidable foreclosures, but that takes time. Lawyers in New York also are required to submit a form verifying the accuracy of their foreclosure filings.

In addition, some law firms that came to be known as foreclosure mills — ones that handled a huge number of cases for large financial companies, particularly in Florida — have closed during investigations into their business practices. That has thrown another wrench into the the legal process and further slowed the rate of foreclosures.

Altogether, banks and mortgage lenders hold more than 875,000 foreclosed homes, according to RealtyTrac. Even without the many foreclosures still in the pipeline, Blomquist said, such a massive inventory will take more than two years to clear at the current sales rate.

The holdup has been a blessing to some troubled borrowers, who have had more time to improve their finances, sell their homes or work with lenders on loan modifications. But it also has cast a long shadow over the larger economic recovery and increased the risk that some homeowners will choose not to pay their mortgages — even if they can — knowing that any reckoning will not come quickly.

In Pasco County, Cobb churned through the cases quickly, but the stacks of files seemed slow to shrink. Several frazzled homeowners showed up to argue their cases and tell their hard-luck stories. He mostly ruled against them but wished them luck.

Lawyer Steven Jonas got one client’s foreclosure delayed because the bank filed faulty paperwork. He said that he is glad to see the “rocket dockets” go and that a more deliberate process will be more fair for average homeowners. But he also realizes that the logjam has larger consequences.

“We’re backlogged now,” he said, but “it’s going to get worse.”

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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