What Happened to the Government’s Short Sales Program?

The Wall Street Journal posted the following article by WSJ’s reporter Nick Timiraos concerning the Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives short sale program:

In April, the Obama administration formally rolled out a new program, called Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives, that was designed to spur more short sales, where banks allow homeowners to sell their homes for less than the mortgage debt outstanding.

Like other foreclosure-prevention initiatives, this one appears to be off to a slow start — just 342 sales have been completed through September.

HAFA was designed as a cousin to the Obama administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program, HAMP, whose woes have been well documented. HAFA works like this: Servicers are supposed to consider short sales for borrowers who aren’t able to receive a HAMP modification. Because some 700,000 HAMP applicants have been ejected from that program, there’s a potentially large pool of borrowers who might be evaluated for HAFA.

Initially announced in May 2009, HAFA was also designed to help reduce wait times by streamlining the short sale process through standardized documents and approaches for short sales. Under the program, the government offers incentive payments to mortgage-servicing companies, investors and even the borrowers that accept a short sale under prescribed guidelines.

For example, second-lien mortgages receive 6% of the unpaid loan balance in a short sale, up to a maximum of $6,000, but they must agree to relinquish all claims against a borrower. (Our story on Saturday illustrated why seconds pose problems in short sales.) The program also provides $3,000 in “move-out assistance” to borrowers.

Many real-estate agents say banks have largely ignored the program and that they are applying it unevenly. “Banks are initiating the HAFA transaction and then after three weeks they say, ‘Naw, sorry, you didn’t qualify,’” says Greg Markov, a Phoenix real-estate agent.  “That three weeks is a huge pain. You wasted all this time.”

Industry officials, meanwhile, say that HAFA has been hindered by extensive documentation requirements and restrictive qualification guidelines. A homeowner that’s already relocated isn’t HAFA eligible, for example, and neither are borrowers that apply within 60 days of a foreclosure date.

The program is also voluntary, which may limit participation from second-lien holders and mortgage insurance companies that see a financial reason to avoid a short sale that requires them to forgo the opportunity to seek deficiencies against borrowers.

“It looks good on paper, but you can’t make anyone participate,” says Kevin Kauffman, a Phoenix real-estate agent who says he’s closed 150 short sales but has yet to complete one through HAFA.

Still, the Treasury and other supporters say they’re optimistic that results will pick up. Because short sales take several months to close, it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect huge numbers of deals that would close within five months. Moreover, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn’t issue their own participation rules until August.

“It does take a little bit of time to see results on these,” says Dave Sunlin, Bank of America’s senior vice president for short sales and bank-owned property sales. “The concept on paper is there.”

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