Not Paying the Mortgage, Yet Stuck With the Keys

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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A growing number of American homeowners are falling into financial limbo: They're badly behind on payments, but their banks have not yet foreclosed.

The backlog of seriously delinquent mortgages, which so far affects about 1 million borrowers, is a shadow over hopes for a rebound in the nation's housing markets. It masks the full extent of the foreclosure crisis and threatens to depress prices even further just as some parts of the country are hinting at recovery. For lenders, it could portend even more financial losses tied to the mortgage meltdown.

"It just means foreclosure rates are going to keep rising," said Patrick Newport, an economist for IHS Global Insight.

Rising mortgage delinquencies were at the root of the recession, and many economists say an economic recovery will be difficult until the housing market recovers and home prices stabilize.

And even though a delayed foreclosure can be a blessing for some troubled homeowners, for others, it simply prolongs the financial distress, leaving them on the hook for the condition of the property. Even if they move out, they cannot move on.

"I have even begged them for a foreclosure," delinquent mortgage-holder Charlotte Jensen said. When she realized she couldn't save her Glen Allen home last year, she filed for bankruptcy, packed up her family and moved out. Nearly a year later, Bank of America has yet to take back the home.

During the first quarter of this year, the share of all homeowners seriously delinquent on their mortgage but not yet facing foreclosure more than doubled to 3.04 percent, or about $227 billion in loans. There was a total of $97 billion in such loans during the same period in 2008, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. In more prosperous times, the rate is much lower -- it was less than 1 percent in the first quarter of 2007, according to the industry publication.

Some of the backlog reflects the inability of lenders to keep up with the swelling rolls of delinquent properties.

"Lenders are having an immensely difficult time handling the capacity. They are torn between loan modification, short sales, foreclosures, and they are finding they can't do all these things at once, and do them well, so we're seeing a lot of things falling through the cracks," said Howard Glaser, a housing industry consultant and a housing official during the Clinton administration.

But some of the backlog also reflects an intentional slowdown in the pace of foreclosures as government and industry step up efforts to help borrowers who want to save their homes. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-run mortgage financing companies, put a temporary moratorium on foreclosures late last year and many of the country's largest lenders followed suit. That gave some lenders more time to determine which borrowers could benefit from government help.

The glut of foreclosed homes on the market has already pushed down prices across the country. Existing-home prices fell another 16.8 percent in May compared with a year ago, according to industry data released yesterday. The overhang of homes in limbo means that foreclosure rates are likely to increase dramatically during the second half of this year and into 2010 as lenders work through the backlog, said Bob Bellack, chairman of Zetabid, which auctions foreclosed properties.

"Prices will fall to the point where you have equilibrium, and it won't reach that until there is no longer this foreclosure overhang," Bellack said.


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