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Mortgage officials try exits softer than foreclosures

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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Seeking alternatives to the nation's struggling foreclosure prevention efforts, federal and mortgage industry officials increasingly are looking for ways to get distressed borrowers to leave their homes voluntarily, without going through the expensive foreclosure process or a messy eviction.

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Citigroup, for instance, plans to announce a pilot program on Thursday that would allow delinquent borrowers who don't qualify for or decline mortgage relief the opportunity to stay in their homes without making payments for up to six months before turning over the keys, in return for keeping the property in good condition. The bank estimates that up to 20,000 borrowers in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio could be eligible.

The program is just the latest amid a growing acknowledgment that foreclosure prevention efforts will fail to reach millions of borrowers over the next few years.

"This is a graceful way to move on with their lives instead of being foreclosed on and being evicted from their homes," said Sanjiv Das, chief executive of CitiMortgage.

The Citigroup plan attempts to address some common industry complaints, including borrowers who leave their homes in disarray after foreclosure, requiring lenders to spend thousands of dollars fixing up the property before putting it on the market. Also, homeowners who owe far more than their homes are worth increasingly are choosing to "strategically default," even though they can afford to pay their mortgage. The new program gives CitiMortgage more control over when distressed homes are put up for sale, bypassing clogged courthouses that have slowed the foreclosure process in many parts of the country.

By avoiding a glut of foreclosures that could hit the housing market within the next 16 to 18 months, the program -- if it is replicated throughout the industry -- could help prevent another dip in home prices, Das said.

It would be a more orderly process "than if all of the foreclosed properties came crashing at some point in the cycle," he said.

Other initiatives have also emerged for borrowers likely to lose their homes. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage financing companies, developed programs allowing former homeowners to become renters after a foreclosure or other proceedings. As part of its federal foreclosure prevention program, known as Making Home Affordable, the Treasury Department announced late last year that lenders would be eligible for $1,000 in exchange for allowing borrowers to sell their home in a short sale. In such deals, the borrower sells the home for less than the outstanding mortgage, and the lender forgives the difference.

Moody's Economy.com has forecast that the number of short sales and transactions in which borrowers surrender their deed in lieu of foreclosure will increase more than 50 percent, to about 490,000, this year. That is just a fraction of the 1.9 million homeowners Moody's has forecast will lose their homes to foreclosure this year, up from 1.7 million last year.

But lenders have struggled to make many of these programs effective. The short sale is often lengthy and cumbersome for homeowners. In some cases, borrowers have second liens on the property, which can hang up the process. And lenders are sometimes suspicious of the potential for fraud if the home is sold cheap to a friend or family member of the borrower.

It's unclear how rental programs for former homeowners are working. Fannie Mae launched its "Deed for Lease" program in November, offering borrowers a 12-month lease in return for turning over the keys to their former home and maintaining the property. A company spokeswoman said that it was too early to judge the program's success, but that former homeowners who surrender their deed to avoid foreclosure -- numbering nearly 2,000 through the third quarter of last year -- would be eligible. Freddie Mac's year-old program targets former homeowners after their foreclosure, offering them a month-to-month lease. It has not released specific data on how many homeowners have chosen this option.

Citigroup's program goes further. It targets delinquent homeowners who do not qualify for mortgage relief. During the time the borrower is still in the home, they must continue to pay utilities, but in some cases, the bank may help cover some of the taxes, insurance or homeowner association fees. The borrower would also be eligible for transition counseling to help find a new home, and a minimum of $1,000 to help offset moving costs.

If there is significant demand for the program, Citigroup will expand it, Das said. "There might be complications that we haven't thought about," he said. "What happens if they don't turn over the keys after six months or they don't maintain their house like we would like them to maintain their house?"


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