Treasury hopes new rules send short sales to the rescue of underwater mortgages

(Daniel Baxter For The Washington Post)
By Tracey L. Longo
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 13, 2010

With new Treasury Department rules designed to expedite short sales set to take effect April 5, relief can't come soon enough for some area buyers, sellers and real estate agents who have waded through a long and arduous process to get short sales approved by the bank.

In a short sale, a homeowner sells the property for its current market value, which is less than what's owed on the mortgage, and the lender agrees to accept the lower amount. The new rules that offer participating lenders cash incentives to get them to approve more short-sale deals also allow them only 10 days to approve or reject short-sale purchase offers, said Treasury spokeswoman Meg Reilly.

Incentive payments written into the Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives Program are designed to help offset some of the financial pain that banks experience when they agree to settle for less than they are owed on a home loan. Mortgage servicers (the companies that accept and process homeowners' mortgage payments) may receive up to $1,000 for the successful completion of a short sale. Treasury will also pay up to $1,000 to those holding second liens and home equity loans, if they agree to the deal. While junior lien holders have begun to ask for more compensation, the rules now limit incentives to $3,000.

To help speed up short sales, the program calls for lenders to use standardized paperwork and to establish an acceptable sale price before the home is put on the market. Sellers will be allowed at least 120 days to market the home and possibly as long as one year. During that time, the lender cannot foreclose. At closing, the government will give sellers up to $1,500 to cover relocation expenses.

Banks participating in the program have also agreed not to negotiate reductions in real estate agents' sales commissions after they receive a short-sale contract. Such commission reductions have discouraged some agents from listing and showing short sales, according to the National Association of Realtors.

According to the Treasury rules, a participating loan servicer must offer the short-sale program to a borrower who does not qualify for, or did not succeed at, a loan-modification under the administration's home affordable mortgage program.

Nationally, 38 percent of all sales in January were distressed sales, which include short sales and foreclosures. In the Washington area, short sales accounted for 6 percent of all sales in Maryland and 8 percent in Virginia during the last four months of 2009. That number is expected to rise significantly in the next several months, according to NAR. Agents have not yet reported short-sale activity in the District.

Some who have worked with short sales, however, are skeptical that the new rules can compress the approval process into 10 days.

"I've done five short sales in the past year and, frankly, I don't want to do another one," says Cyndy Davis, president of Flaherty Group Realty in Kensington. Her most recent short sale, which required a sign-off from Bank of America, took 10 months.

"I contacted the bank at least every other day, and it still took them 90 days to respond to our first offer on a Silver Spring townhouse," Davis said. "They took from June until August. Then when we ordered the appraisal, it came in $33,000 below my buyer's offer. When we resubmitted the new offer, it took the bank another 45 days to respond."

Mortgage servicers take 90 to 120 days on average to approve short sales, according to NAR.

Juwana Bauwens, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, acknowledged that the process did take that long.

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