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Just about every home sale is stressful on the seller. A short sale, given the higher stakes and financial ramifications, often has even more stress for the seller than a typical transaction. On a few occasions, I have had a short sale client lament that they are “left out” in a way, in that everyone is going to walk away from the closing with money except them. Short sale sellers realize no proceeds at closing.

I recall the first instance where this occurred; the seller didn’t really want to sell, and was dismayed at what her perceived as a feeding frenzy around him over his loss. The agents were making a fee, the lawyers were getting a check, and he’d lose his house. It didn’t seem right to him. The listing expired unsold 3 years ago, and it remains unsold with the 3rd listing agent. I don’t think the people could let go.

So what it in it for someone to do a short sale when they don’t get any money? Quite a bit if you ask me.

You avoid a foreclosure. A good point was made by the Distressed Property Institute in the CDPE course: negative trade lines lose their punch and fall off over time, but the one question on every mortgage application is “have you ever had a foreclosure?”

You leave your home with dignity. That goes for you and the neighborhood. Anyone who sells their home moves out on their own terms. Nobody evicts them, and nobody knocks on the door informing them he represents the lender and the house is now theirs. Short sale sellers pack their things and move to their next home like anyone else. And the neighborhood avoids the blight of a bank owned REO and all the baggage that comes with it.

You minimize the impact to your credit. A foreclosure is a nuclear event in credit. I could name nothing worse. While many people who do sell short have late payments, if they manage things correctly they can often be qualified to buy again in 24 months.

You avoid a deficiency judgment. A properly negotiated short sale typically results in the waiver of any deficiency. The slate is wiped clean. As I told my former client, if he just let the house go to foreclosure he wouldn’t get any money either. Worse, a deficiency judgment could haunt him thereafter.

I suppose there are other reasons, but to those who view a short sale as unpalatable, I would ask what they’d propose as a better option. Sometimes you have to choose your poison. Banks aren’t modifying loans these days- as a matter of fact, many of my clients came to me after they were turned down a 2nd and 3rd attempt to modify. You may not walk away with money in a short sale these days. But in a successfully negotiated short sale, do do get something few people consider: a second chance.

To add one more point, there are programs coming into prominence that do offer sellers a small stipend in a short sale, some as much as $7,000. I saw a letter from Chase today referencing up to a $20,000 credit for a short sale. I am sure the small print is copious for that, but HAFA is the first place we are going with our clients in short sales so they can get a credit from their lender at closing. Not every short sale broker is alike. You need a good one who knows how to get the debt discharged and the deficiency waived.

 

I just finished my first day of CDPE (Certified Distressed Property Expert) class, and am reflecting on one of the more profound insights given by the instructor, Mark Boyland. Mark, who is an excellent presenter, compared the difficult issues we have to sort out with distressed homeowners with the rather matter of fact way a doctor handles another rather touchy thing:

“Please take off your clothes. ”

At my last physical, the doctor hardly looked up from his clipboard when he said that. But he was pretty comfortable about the request- so comfortable, that it seemed as mundane as asking his secretary if anyone called while he was out.

Now, when a guy is that blasé about your prostate test, there is a lesson to be learned.

We have to ask clients questions that are probing and invasive in any other context but real estate:

  • How much do you owe on your house?
  • Are you current on your mortgage?
  • Why did you fall behind on your payments?
  • Etc. etc.
These aren’t comfortable questions to ask. And the answers might be very difficult to examine for a seller who is facing foreclosure or imminent default. But we have to ask.  As I have blogged before, privacy does not reside in a vacuum. The more we know about a client’s situation, the better we can serve them.

A physician can’t give a physical to a person in a parka. We can’t help a distressed home seller whose equity position and status with their mortgage company is a mystery. We have obligations of disclosure to others in the market place, but more importantly the answers to the uncomfortable questions affect our pricing strategy, marketing, negotiation methodology, and literally dozens of other critical issues that arise in the obstacle-laden, serpentine maze of loss mitigation.

We are between borrowers under financial stress and a large monolithic financial institution. Information is crucial. Patients need to tell their doctor where it hurts or they can’t be helped. It is the same in real estate. It isn’t fun to ask these personal financial questions, and while some of us are more comfortable than others about it, we have to ask. The more honest and forthcoming the client is in their answers, the higher the likelihood that they can be helped.

How much of a loss will the lender accept in a short sale? I am asked this from time to time by consumers and agents alike. We always disclose when a property is being sold subject to lender approval, and I understand the rationale for asking about the numbers, especially with the high dollar value of New York area properties, but the question is actually a non sequitur. Here’s why:

Which home has a better chance of having the short sale being approved:

  • A $600,000 home with a $650,000 mortgage
  • A $600,000 home with a $850,000 mortgage

Many people assume that the house with the $50,000 shortfall is the one that will be easier to have the short sale approved. That assumption is incorrect. The fact of the matter is that the amount that the lender loses in a short sale is immaterial to the approval. Once hardship is established, short sale approval is based on the banks’s valuation of the home, chiefly through an appraisal or Broker Price Opinion (BPO). The lender could be losing $25,000 or $250,000- it doesn’t matter. It all hinges on that appraisal or BPO.

Why? Because you can’t expect to get more than the market will bring. And if the lender has to seize the home, they will do a BPO on the home and price it accordingly with no regard for the loan amount they foreclosed on. The lender is simply trying to minimize their loss. For that reason, the buyer’s terms are less important in many cases. A regular seller might give a significant premium to a cash buyer for example. A lender in a short sale probably won’t give that term much deference at all.

Therefore, the big question in a short sale is not how much the bank is losing or what they are owed, but if the offer on the table reflects comparable sales activity. That is the great yardstick by which approvals are measured.

 

As short sales have become more common and are even showing up in new markets in Westchester, I find myself educating my colleagues on what can and cannot be done in order to have a successful closing. Lately, we’ve received offers that are unrealistically low; essentially, what the buyers do not understand is that the lender is going to evaluate their offer based on comparable market activity, not their speculative attempts to get a bargain. 

I don’t blame buyers for wanting to get a good deal. I want the same thing for my own buyers- who doesn’t? But the lender in a short sale is not nearby, so they hire a professional to determine the value. Typically an appraisal or a broker price opinion are done and sent to the bank. If the BPO or appraisal match or are close to the offer, and approval is likely. If the offer is considerably lower than the bank findings, the lender will ask for more money. 

This is where agents need to educate the buying public. It is irresponsible to tie a house under contract for  an unrealistic low amount.  No seller can risk several months waiting for the bank to issue an inevitable denial when the home could have been active on the market and attracted a better offer. “Short sale” is not code for a steal. Buyers should ask their agent for comparable activity and formulate their offer based on realistic events. 

The market in Westchester County is relatively strong compared to much of the rest of the USA. Local activity is relevant to the short sale approval, not the considerably more depressed values in other areas of the nation. Buyers should base their offers on comparable sales (which we have in abundance in New York) and not speculation. I would encourage any buyer to read my prior post on short sales and what you need to know before buying one

Previous articles on Short Sales from my Active Rain Blog.

The concern of some homeowners looking to do a short sale that a 1099 issued from the bank will expose them to a new problem, namely a huge income tax bill on the forgiven debt, is understandable. With home values in Westchester in 2010 at a median of $630,000, a six figure 1099 is entirely possible. In the past, a bank could issue a 1099 for forgiven debt, rendering it akin to income for tax purposes.

However, even if the bank does issue a 1099, the likelihood that you’ll have a tax problem is virtually nonexistant for owner occupants thanks to a law passed in 2007, the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act. From the IRS website:

The Act applies only to forgiven or cancelled debt used to buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence, or to refinance debt incurred for those purposes. In addition, the debt must be secured by the home. This is known as qualified principal residence indebtedness.

Most definitions of “principle residence” mean that you have resided there for at least 2 of the prior 5 years. That means that if you move out due to a job transfer or or other reason, you are not out of luck. Obviously, as a licensed real estate broker I do not give tax advice. You have to consult a tax professional like a CPA. However, make sure you discuss this law when you speak. It runs through 2012, and may well be extended.

 

I have been prominent in two separate stories in the media this past week regarding default properties and their effect on the market and the borrower. This past Sunday I was in the New York Times, and on Tuesday I was in a nice piece on AOL Daily Finance.

The Times piece centered on strategic defaults, where borrowers who could otherwise afford a mortgage stop paying on purpose. Many people who do this do so for cash flow reasons; if you paid $350,000 for a house in the peak and the same house is for sale at foreclosure down the street for $180,000, some people just buy the cheaper one and let the old house go, cutting their payment. However, the credit consequences can be dire. The debate on the ethics of the practice is heated.

The AOL Daily Finance article is part of a series on how the housing crisis has affected different places. Mount Vernon, a city in Southern Westchester County which has been rife with short sales and foreclosures, was discussed in the article. Values are down in the neighborhood I am quoted on about 50%. What is not mentioned is that many of the foreclosures were actually renovated by the prior owner before they ran into financial problems, which punctuates the crisis, for me, in a very sad way. You hate to witness broken dreams.

Which is why we work so hard on getting our short sales closed and done for our clients. Preventing foreclosures is what we are all about.

After two similar discussions the past week, it would be wise to address how a short sale should be priced. After all, if the offer submitted to the lender is subject to approval and therefore not a certainty, all the more that the asking price is also a hypothesis.

It is. But, as educated guesses go, a good short sale broker’s list price is pretty educated. It takes into account comparable sales, competing listings, and, sometimes, the gut sense of a seasoned professional. You have to skate a nuanced line in some cases between what will get the phone to ring and what the lender will sign off on.

I have blogged before on the stress that a short sale can put on a home seller. They are typically in default, getting collection calls and letters from the bank, facing the steps up to a foreclosure, and often overwhelmed with distress. When one is under stress, it is natural to instinctively move to eliminate the source of the stress, so often sellers want to lower the price to get moving, and dramatically so. The problem is that if you lower the price to be the lowest asking price the neighborhood has seen in 5 years, you can foster too much skepticism from the lender and  the offers you get might not be enough for the bank accept.

For example, if comparable sales put your homes estimated value at $400,000, it is irresponsible to whack the price to $320,000 just to get an offer and be done with it. You have to balance between what the buying public will respond to and what the lender will accept. And few homes sell in 10 or 20 days. It takes some time. Not all short sales tale a long time to find a buyer,  but some can, and too many reductions too soon can sabotage your efforts.

The best (and really only) approach is to price the home aggressively based on comparable sales, and then review and reduce every 30 days unless market activity indicates something faster. But it is market activity, and not nerves or stress, that should source the price strategy.