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Lawmakers consider slowing Virginia foreclosure process

During the housing boom, millions of homeowners got easy access to mortgages. Now, some mortgage lenders and government officials have taken action after discovering that many mortgage documents were mishandled.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 10:05 PM

As Virginia's new legislative session gets underway, lawmakers are considering an overhaul of the state's foreclosure process aimed at combating alleged shortcuts and abuses by lenders seizing borrowers' homes.

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Homeowners, who currently face one of the fastest foreclosure processes in the country, would be given more time to defend themselves under one proposal. Another bill would require lenders to get the approval of a judge before seizing a home. A third would give homeowners a last-minute chance to avert foreclosure by catching up on overdue payments.

The effort to transform Virginia's foreclosure process faces an early test Monday, when one of the more far-reaching bills is scheduled for a hearing and a vote in a House subcommittee. The measure would force banks to maintain up-to-date records on Virginia loans in government offices, potentially restraining global trade in these mortgages.

The proposals come as high unemployment and the real estate meltdown have made foreclosures commonplace. Overwhelmed by defaults, some lenders have been accused of using bogus or "robo-signed" documents to seize property from delinquent borrowers.

The Virginia Bankers Association strongly opposes the overhaul, saying it would gum up the process. Members of the group visited the General Assembly this week to make their arguments.

Some key lawmakers, including the speaker of the House, say the system works well and that proposed revisions could make matters worse.

Bills filed in the House and Senate call for a variety of changes.

Homeowners would be given greater warning - 30 or 45 days - before their houses could be auctioned. Current law requires that foreclosure notices be sent at least 14 days in advance, which has left some homeowners with too little time to mount a defense.

Under the new proposals, lenders would face penalties for foreclosing on the basis of false documents, and would have to seek court review before foreclosing.

In addition, banks and investors would be required to file papers in county land records whenever they transfer ownership of a mortgage. That would make it easier for homeowners to find out who controls their debt, and it would boost state and local revenue from taxes and fees associated with the filings.

This bill would also directly challenge a Reston firm called MERS, which attempts to speed the pooling and sale of mortgages to investors by supplanting the centuries-old archives maintained in county courthouses.

A creation of the mortgage industry, MERS runs a private electronic database to track the transfer of mortgages. It also serves as a proxy for mortgage owners in the foreclosure process.

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