4 ways distressed homeowners can start fresh

Mood of the Market

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 4, 2012

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Mood of the Market

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News®

Clearly, thankfully, the market is looking up. Way up, actually.

In many markets, tales of multiple offers and a dearth of homes vis-à-vis the numbers of buyers who want them are becoming commonplace. Now, many analysts point to the banks' intentional decision to keep many foreclosures off the market as artificially driving this demand.

But if you're a seller on today's market, the dynamics underlying the demand are much less important than the fact that your chances of getting your home sold at a good price are better than they have been in a long, long time.

The news for buyers is not all bad, either: For the first time in a long while, buyers are not faced with the double-edged sword prospect of buying into a declining market; appraisals are coming in at the agreed-upon purchase price; and mortgage rates are still uber-low (fingers-crossed).

But with all this fresh market optimism, there is an ugly elephant in our collective room, which is that many, many homeowners and former homeowners are still dealing with the lingering remnants of the subprime market mess and the real estate recession. Many are still upside down, still struggling to make the too-high payments on loans left over from the last peak of the market or trying to recover financially and otherwise from a recession-era foreclosure or short sale.

For those folks -- a huge, if silent, number -- here are four routes to a fresh slate:

1. Sell. Fact is, the vast majority of underwater homeowners who could stay put did. Walking away was very much the exception and not the rule. The result? There are hundreds of thousands of homeowners out there with homes that lost value during the recession who are still holding on to subprime loans that have long since reset. While these loans' rates tend to be low, if you had a short-term, interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage in 2005 or 2006, chances are good that your payment actually increased steeply when you were required to begin paying the principal.

For sellers who have scrimped and saved, taken on second jobs, rented out rooms or allowed important expenses like property taxes or other bills to go unpaid in order to make a too-high mortgage payment, the current market dynamics may present a good opportunity to divest of an unsustainable mortgage obligation by selling or even short-selling the place.

Buyers are out en masse and prices are on the rise, meaning that you might not be as upside down as you were last year or the year before. Banks are moving short sales through much more quickly and efficiently than in years' past (though never as quickly or efficiently as we'd hope).

The income tax exemption on debt forgiven through a short sale is still valid through the end of this year (an extension is probable, but by no means guaranteed).

If you know or believe that your current home is simply too expensive for you to afford with financial integrity, and there is no end in sight, talk with a local agent and a tax professional about how you might be able to get a clean slate by selling the home.

2. Settle old seconds and HELOCs. If you lost a home to foreclosure in a nonrecourse state and you had a second mortgage or home equity line of credit, it's entirely possible that your second is still a lingering debt. (Your first mortgage can foreclose and repossess the home, leaving the second mortgagor holding nothing but paper.) Many second-mortgage holders are not actively collecting on these loans, but they simply stay on your credit reports and eventually rear their ugly heads when the time comes for you to try to qualify for a car or a mortgage.

Some recommend bankruptcy as an expedient way of extinguishing these loans for little or nothing, but the blemish bankruptcy leaves on your credit may defeat the purpose of getting rid of the old loan in the first place. I've been talking with some of these banks and servicers, and many of the banks will settle these unsecured second mortgages or home equity lines of credit for as low as 10 or 20 percent of the outstanding balance.

Contact the servicer of your former home's second or HELOC to discuss a settlement. Again, the taxes you would normally pay on the forgiven debt will be exempt through the end of this year, for most borrowers, so if you can settle this soon, it's in your best interest to do so. If you don't know what bank or servicer even manages this loan (many are sold and resold), check your credit report and seeing who is reporting the debt, if anyone, or take out your old documents with the loan number and researching the trail starting with your original servicer.

3. Check your credit reports and dispute expired derogatories. It might be hard to believe, but the first foreclosures from the last real estate recession began happening circa 2005-2006, so they are set to be timing off of credit reports right about now. If you had an early-recession foreclosure or short sale, check your credit reports now to ensure that they are being reported correctly, or not at all, if the seven-year expiration time frame has run. In fact, even if your short sale or foreclosure was not that early, it may make sense to pull your credit reports and understand how things are being reported and the impact these items are having on your credit score. You might be surprised, in one direction or the other.

4. Refinance and lock in low rates. If you lost value in your home during the recession, it might have been nearly impossible to refinance it to take advantage of lower rates and bring your payment down. With sales prices on the upswing and rates still low, though, you may have a new opportunity to refinance a "bad" loan and lock it in a today's uber-low rates.

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