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New round of foreclosures threatens housing market

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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

The housing market is facing swelling ranks of homeowners who are seriously delinquent but have yet to lose their homes, and this is threatening a new wave of foreclosures that could hit just as the real estate market has begun to stabilize.

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About 5 million to 7 million properties are potentially eligible for foreclosure but have not yet been repossessed and put up for sale. Some economists project it could take nearly three years before all these homes have been put on the market and purchased by new owners. And the number of pending foreclosures could grow much bigger over the coming year as more distressed borrowers become delinquent and then, if they can't obtain mortgage relief, wade through the foreclosure process, which often takes more than a year to complete.

As these foreclosed properties add to the supply of homes for sale, they could undercut housing prices, which have increased modestly through December, according to the most recent figures in the S&P/Case-Shiller home prices index. That rise partly reflected a slowdown in the flow of foreclosed homes onto the market.

The rate at which J.P. Morgan Chase seized properties, for example, peaked in the middle of 2008 and fell steadily last year, according to a February investor report. But the bank expects repossessions to increase this year, nearly doubling to 45,000 by the fourth quarter.

"Some of the positive housing data may not be signaling a true turning point, as many servicers are holding back on foreclosures and the related houses are not yet being offered for sale," said Diane Westerback, a managing director at Standard & Poor's. Westerback said it could take 33 months to clear the backlog.

Data released Thursday by RealtyTrac illustrate the dynamic. While banks repossessed fewer homes in February than a month earlier, borrowers continued to fall behind on their payments, adding to the inventory of properties headed toward foreclosure that have yet to be put on the market, said Daren Blomquist, RealtyTrac's spokesman.

"Just looking at the numbers, we would expect there to be a bigger percentage of properties" repossessed by banks by now, he said.

This "shadow market" reflects the increasing lag between defaults and foreclosures. Many lenders are struggling to keep up with the overwhelming number of borrowers who can't make their payments, and they're reluctant to rush repossessed homes onto the market when prices are depressed.

Delinquent borrowers

Today's delinquent borrowers, for the most part, differ in a key regard from those who were caught up in the surge of defaults in 2008. That earlier wave, which precipitated the financial crisis, consisted largely of subprime borrowers who defaulted when their risky loans became unaffordable.

The borrowers in trouble now are, for the most part, people who have better credit and safer loans and have become delinquent because they've lost their jobs or are dealing with other economic setbacks, economists said. More than 75 percent of the borrowers who are now seriously delinquent -- meaning they have missed at least three monthly payments -- have traditional prime loans, according to First American CoreLogic. Most of these borrowers have not made a mortgage payment in six months.

These borrowers are among the most difficult to help. Homeowners with economic troubles such as extended unemployment often cannot make even reduced mortgage payments. And the longer borrowers stay delinquent, the more difficult it is to fashion a mortgage relief plan for them.


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