Rate of foreclosure activity in D.C. area at a low point

Home foreclosures in the Washington region are at their lowest point since the housing market started unraveling, as banks have slowed down the rate at which they were repossessing properties to sort through processing errors.

The number of homes in the region that entered foreclosure is down by 56 percent since the fall, when some of the nation’s largest banks temporarily halted the process after reports of widespread bungling of paperwork, according to a Washington Post analysis of RealtyTrac data.

Since last summer, when banks were aggressively repossessing homes, foreclosures are down by almost half in Prince George’s County, 40 percent in Prince William and 30 percent in Fairfax. In the District, foreclosure activity remains low.

The drop may be nothing more than a temporary reprieve for troubled homeowners, many of whom still face the same unaffordable terms on their loans. There were 6,200 foreclosures in the region during the first three months of the year, and they should pick up again now that several banks have completed their reviews, industry experts said. But for the time being, house hunters looking for bargains are not finding as many foreclosed homes to choose from.

“In the summer of last year, we were getting on average two or three foreclosure listings a week,” said Barbara Newcomb, a Maryland real estate agent who sells foreclosures for banks. “If we get one a month now, we’re lucky. And it’s not just us.”

The local trend jibes with national figures released earlier this week by RealtyTrac, a company that provides foreclosure data and listings, showing that foreclosure activity hit a three-year low in April. For each of the past seven months, foreclosure filings slipped from the corresponding period a year earlier, in part because it’s taking longer to complete the process. The average time it takes for a lender to repossess a home after a borrower has defaulted stretched to 400 days in April from 340 days a year earlier and 151 days in that period in 2007.

For some troubled borrowers, the delays have given them hope of hanging onto their homes, said Vicki King Taitano, an attorney with Maryland Legal Aid. Those who fell behind on their mortgages because they lost their jobs, for instance, have more time to look for work.

Even though many of the large lenders have lifted their foreclosure moratoriums, the companies are resubmitting documents to the courts, which gives some borrowers even more time to find a job. Lenders are responding to concerns that many documents contained forged signatures and that bank employees who made sworn statements vouching for the veracity of the documents had never reviewed them.

But for most struggling homeowners, the delays have not translated into a second chance, many housing advocates say. Instead, the delays have left borrowers in flux, prolonged their emotional anguish and added to their financial headaches.

In Virginia, where foreclosure sales do not require court approval, foreclosure activity slowed slightly because of the flawed paperwork debacle, said Kristi Kelly, a consumer lawyer in Fairfax.

“But in the end, there’s no meaningful program in place that forces lenders to modify the loans of these troubled homeowners,” Kelly said. “All these months later, they’re still in trouble and they’re further behind on their payments.”

Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, said he’s received similar feedback from attorneys across the country.

“We’ve got this giant rat stuck in the snake,” Rheingold said. “The process has slowed down but we have lots of borrowers who are still waiting.”

Among them is Steve Hamovitz of Frederick. After he lost his job in construction management in late 2009, he was rejected for a loan modification by his lender and received a foreclosure notice in 2010. But five months ago, the lender dismissed the foreclosure without much of an explanation.

At the lender’s suggestion, Hamovitz reapplied to have his loan payments lowered and thought he had a deal with the bank. In March, the lender denied him a loan modification again, Hamovitz said.

The current slowdown is not the result solely of lenders reviewing their paperwork. Even before foreclosure abuses captured national attention, lenders were growing more reluctant to evict all the homeowners they could in the hardest-hit areas.

One reason is that banks only have to report their loss on a bad loan once they sell a foreclosure. If they simply carry a defaulted loan, they don’t take a hit on their balance sheets, said Mark Goldman, a real estate professor at San Diego State University.

“It’s the same old trick. If you don’t like the results, change the way you count,” he said. “A lot of banks are in the stay-and-pray-and-hope-the-problem-will-go-away mode.”

Also contributing to the delays is the reluctance of lenders to flood the market with foreclosed homes, which could cause real estate prices to tumble.

But the timeout taken by lenders to review their procedures has been the primary reason for the drop in foreclosures.

Industry experts project that foreclosure activity will eventually increase. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said there are 3.5 million loans in foreclosure or seriously late and unlikely to be reworked. Lenders are not expected to release them all for sale at once, for fear of devaluing the properties.

But “it will pick up significantly,” Zandi said. Most have probably been rejected for a modification. “They will go into foreclosure in the near future.”

Jim Coulter, a Maryland real estate agent who handles foreclosure listings for the banks, said all signs indicate that banks see it coming. In past downturns, the lenders have laid people off. Now, they’re just cutting back their hours, Coulter said. “There is [foreclosure] inventory there and they need their trained staff ready when it occurs.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
Dan Keating analyzes data for projects, stories, graphics and interactives. He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer at The Miami Herald for exposing vote fraud, and a team that was a Pulitzer finalist the year before for uncovering police fraud.
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