Coming Up Short, More And More

By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009

More than two years into the housing crisis, lenders are beginning to allow more troubled homeowners to unload their homes for less than they owe. The practice, known as a short sale, is gaining popularity as an alternative to foreclosure, but it remains a difficult and lengthy task to pull off because the lender bears the brunt of the loss.

The number of short sales completed jumped 208 percent during the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2008, according to a report issued last month by the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulate banks.

Short sales could increase further as home prices continue to fall, leaving a growing number of borrowers owing more than their home is worth. Also, the Obama administration is implementing a program to pay lenders to accept less than the balance owed by the borrower in such deals.

Already, Bank of America, the country's largest mortgage lender, has seen completed short sales jump 50 percent so far this year, said Dave Sunlin, a senior vice president who manages the foreclosure and real estate division. "We understand this is an opportunity to mitigate our losses, while helping turn around the housing market and help homeowners," he said.

Bank of America opened a short-sale call center last year. And the bank hopes to launch a pilot program within 30 days that would shrink to one week the time it takes to have a specific short-sale offer approved, Sunlin said. Under the program, prospective sellers apply to Bank of America to get preapproved to pursue a short sale in general, then go back to the bank for approval of specific offers as they come in. The program will initially focus on borrowers who fail to qualify for a government foreclosure-prevention program, he said.

"If they have come to the conclusion that there is no possible workout, they should contact us as quickly as possible," Sunlin said.

The types of homes that end up in short sales vary widely. At the beginning of the financial crisis, most of the homes were on the lower-priced end of the market, said Marc Cormier, an agent for Re/Max Allegiance in McLean. But now, more higher-end homes are ending up in such deals, including a 10-bedroom home in Potomac, which was originally put on the market last year for $10 million, he said. The seller reduced the asking price to $5.5 million last month, and it's listed as a short sale. "You're going to be seeing more of that from now until 2010," Cormier said.

Last year, about 5 percent of home sales in Loudoun County, one of the hardest-hit parts of the region, were short sales. Now they account for about 23 percent of the market, said Tony Arko, an agent for Market Advantage Real Estate. "A year ago, there was almost nothing. Everyone thought short sales were going to be a blip on the screen," Arko said.

Still, the short-sale process is notoriously slow and cumbersome. Unlike normal sales, the seller's lender must approve the deal and is often suspicious of lowball offers, potentially dragging out the process for months. About 60 percent of approved short sales do not ultimately close, largely because buyers walk away from the deals, according to Bank of America.

Wells Fargo began streamlining its short-sale process last year, said David Knight, its senior vice president of specialty servicing for default and retention operations. It used to take more than 90 days for a short-sale offer to be approved; now it can be done in 30 days in some cases, Knight said. "We said there were a lot of things we can do ahead of time so we can give a decision faster," he said.

For example, bank officials used to wait until they received a short-sale offer before starting the process. Now, Knight said, they encourage borrowers to contact them early so they can begin assessing whether the home would qualify for the program and help them set a proper price.

Before attempting a short sale, borrowers should weigh the potential tax liability and prepare for the usual hassles of a sale -- cleaning for open houses and negotiating with bidders -- even though they won't reap the usual cash payoff, real estate agents and lenders said. A real estate agent experienced with short sales can be helpful, they said, but borrowers should also prepare to provide documentation of a hardship that would persuade their lender to accept less than owed.

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