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The Next Hit: Quick Defaults

The Palm Hill Condominium project in West Palm Beach, Fla., has a default rate at 80 percent for loans from one lender. A dozen loans went bad after no payment or one. The apartments built 28 years ago on former Everglades swampland were converted to condominiums three years ago.
The Palm Hill Condominium project in West Palm Beach, Fla., has a default rate at 80 percent for loans from one lender. A dozen loans went bad after no payment or one. The apartments built 28 years ago on former Everglades swampland were converted to condominiums three years ago. (By Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)

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Under the FHA's own rules, there's a presumption of fraud or material misrepresentation if loans default after borrowers make no more than one payment. In those cases, the lenders are required by the FHA to investigate what went awry and notify the agency of any suspected fraud. But the agency's efforts at pursuing abusive lenders have been hamstrung. Once, about 130 HUD investigators teamed with FBI agents in an FHA fraud unit, but this office was dismantled in 2003 after the FHA's business dwindled in the housing boom.

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At the same time, the FHA office responsible for approving and policing new lenders has not expanded even as the number of active lenders doing business with the FHA more than doubled to 2,300 in the past two years.

Although the FHA insures mortgages issued by lenders, it leaves these companies to conduct their own business. If a lender writes a lot of bad loans, that's when the agency can eject it from the program. Experts in housing finance warn, however, that the FHA has inadequate staffing and technology to keep up.

William Apgar, senior adviser to new HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, agreed that early defaults are a worrisome sign that a lender is abusing FHA-backed loans.

Malfeasance is of such concern to the Obama administration, he said, that Donovan's first meetings at HUD were about ramping up measures to combat fraud.

"We have to make sure people don't scam the system and when they do, they are held accountable," Apgar said.

Pressure to 'Get These Loans Done'

For those still looking to write loans in volume, the only game in town is government-backed mortgages, mostly those guaranteed by the FHA. But unlike with subprime business, lenders in the FHA program are asked to follow agency rules requiring borrowers to document their income, put up a modest down payment and commit to live in the homes.

"With the onslaught of FHA lending that's going on right now, they're bringing in lenders who are not familiar with FHA guidelines," said David Hail, a vice president of Allied Home Mortgage of Houston, one of the nation's largest FHA partners. He said the lenders are "under pressure from their builders or buyers to get these loans done. They're approving loans that they should not be."

The Palm Hill Condominiums project near West Palm Beach, Fla., exemplifies the problem. The two-story stucco apartments built 28 years ago on former Everglades swampland were converted to condominiums three years ago. The complex had the same owner as an FHA-approved mortgage company Great Country Mortgage of Coral Gables, whose brokers pushed no-money-down, no-closing-cost loans to prospective buyers of the condos, according to Michael Tanner, who is identified on a company Web site as a senior loan officer.

Many of the borrowers were first-time home buyers and were unable to keep up their payments. Tanner said he complained to his company that extending loans without any money down lured borrowers who either didn't understand or take seriously the payments they'd have to make. Great Country's owner, Hector Hernandez Jr., could not be reached for comment.

Eighty percent of the Great Country loans at the project have defaulted, a dozen after no payment or one. With 64 percent of all its loans gone bad, Great Country has the highest default rate of any FHA lender, according to the agency's database. It also has the highest instant default rate.

In Reston, Access National Mortgage has watched its default rate climb in three years to 6 percent from 4 percent, and the firm has had more than three dozen FHA loans go into instant default, according to federal data.


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