Kamala Harris Comes Through: CA Out Of Big Banks Deal!

kamala harris, attorney general of california

Kamala Harris Is My Hero, Too

This is terrific news: Kamala Harris, California’s Attorney General, has heard the people of this state, suffering under the worst mortgage and real estate crisis since the Great Depression. She has opted out of the proposed settlement of the 50 states Attorneys General with the Big Banks. That settlement, rumored to be about $25 billion, is really small potatoes and would have been a disastrous conclusion of their investigation.  $25 billion would barely settle the monetary issues for California alone, not to mention the other 49 states. In addition, the banks are seeking to limit all their legal liability in return for the meager settlement. Despite the support of the Obama administration,hoping to end financial uncertainty with this settlement, Harris has decided that California will pursue a separate investigation and, if possible, make a separate settlement with the Big Banks.

Other States Are Reluctant To Sign

Harris follows in the footsteps of Eric Schneiderman of New York who has launched a wide-ranging investigation of the activities of the Big Banks which include Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial.  Other states have also signaled their displeasure with the proposed deal which, if rumors are correct, allots a huge windfall to the Big Banks and a meager settlement to the states. Besides New  York and California, Delaware Massachusetts, Kentucky and Minnesota, along with our hard-hit neighbor, Nevada have all signaled intense dislike of the proposed deal.

California, already one of the worst foreclosure states in the nation, recently made headlines again when foreclosures jumped 55% in one month as BofA, a prime supplier of SoCal mortgages during the “bubble years” via Countrywide, prepared to “dump” more seized homes on an already-bloated real estate market. Stockton, CA is especially at risk for there, it is estimated, 1 in every 7 homes could be foreclosed in the near future. Likewise,  Nevada’s Las Vegas is suffering from an especially difficult and long-lasting crisis  as estimates say that 75% of Las Vegas homes are underwater and could potentially be foreclosed.

Fraudulent Mortgage Practices

As indicated in a previous post, some of the most notorious fraudulent practices of the Big Banks, such as robo-signing, continue despite their public exposure. Since California is a non-judicial state, meaning foreclosures do not have to be approved by a judge or, indeed, by anyone, fraudulent foreclosures are harder to spot. Judicial states, in general, are the ones which have brought such practices to light. Given the huge number of foreclosures in California, though, it stands to reason that large numbers of these were not legitimate.  Victims of such practices should have the help of the state’s top lawyer, the attorney general, to help them seek redress. Except in rare cases, it is prohibitively expensive for individuals to launch suits against Big Banks. That should not give the Big Banks carte blanche to commit wholesale fraud against California mortgagees.

What Does This Mean For Distressed Homeowners?

The most likely scenario now with both New York and California posing uncomfortable questions to the Big Banks while launching probing investigations into mortgage abuse is that the 50-state deal will collapse. The Big Banks will have to live with  uncertainty. Will they be brought to the bar for their crimes? How much will it cost them? Will heads roll? And the Big Question for Big Banks: will profits suffer? will stock prices dive? Few have much sympathy left for the banks, so, aside from Timothy Geitner and Henry Paulson, few will really care.

big banks bailout cartoon

The outcome for the distressed and already-foreclosed-upon homeowner, though is a different story. With multiple ongoing investigations, quick relief in the form of monetary settlements is not in the cards.  It is really, though, to everyone’s advantage to dig deeper into this morass of abuse. If the fraud is papered over, then, equally obviously, it will happen again. If the banks made trillions by fraud and nobody cares to demonstrate the modus operandi, then they will continue to  behave in the same way. Showing the crime and punishing the criminal:  That is the basis of our judicial system and it is a vital necessity in this case.

Some of the more flagrant practices are already known, publicized, and yet continuing. Big Banks could regulate themselves in order to regain public confidence. This is, apparently, what was expected of them after the 2008 bailout which seems to have been offered with no strings whatsoever.  Did they regulate themselves?  For those imprisoned in Siberian ice caves for the past 4 years, the Big Banks went right back to business as usual. Congress needs to regulate our messed-up financial sector. The sooner, the better if we are ever to get out of this nightmare.

The Trouble With Loan Mods

Loan Mods Are Not Working

Despite high hopes and great fanfare, loan mods, it seems, are just not working. Various figures have been bandied about. At the beginning of December, Treasury Department officials determined that about 700,000 mortgage modifications were in process under the federal HAMP [Home Affordable Modification Program], announced in March 2009, but only about 31,000 had actually been made permament.

Those figures are dismal enough, but here’s the kicker–about 25% of homeowners who received mods have already fallen behind on their payments!

Banks Just Don’t Want To Do Loan Mods

Many excuses have been offered for these pathetic figures: paperwork gets lost, homeowners lose patience with the tedious process, the process is so long homeowners’ situations have changed drastically. Some blame the Obama administration. Here’s what I see.

No matter how much the Obama administration admonishes banks to do these mods, the banks are clearly dragging their feet. Good old B of A, for instance, claims 158,000 trial mods, but only 98 have been made permanent. In a year! Then, there’s JP Morgan. It approved 16,000 loan mods in a year, but says it’s a “struggle” to make them permanent  because only half  of those who have completed the 3-month trial program had completed all the paperwork, read financial statements.

Banks Make the Process Tedious

There’s the real issue…Banks require a ton of paperwork, far more and far more complex than most homeowners have either the time or the capacity to supply. It’s a huge job. I know because I have helped many homeowners complete it. As with everything else, the banks take forever to process the paperwork, yes, often losing it and requesting replacements or updates, drawing out the time frame to 6,7, or 9 months before even a 3-month trial period begins. In the meantime, the homeowner who often waited until he was up against it to even apply for the mod is supposed to continue making the regular payment.

Homeowners Must Qualify

Oh, and did I mention, that losing a job or having hours cut back may eliminate the chance to even get a mod.  Why? Because although homeowners focus on the hardship, banks focus on the income. If you want a loan mod, you had better have sufficient income. How much is enough? Good question? The problem is the answer changes from month to month and bank to bank. But, here’s the bottom line: if you have  real financial hardship, you probably won’t get a loan mod.

So far, I haven’t seen any official statistics on what amount of relief the loan mods already processed have actually offered to the homeowners. One survey says $640 a month or 40% reduction. If that’s true, not bad. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s accurate.  The ones that I have seen offer much less and usually require a several thousand dollar payment to get  into the trial period.

Loan Balance Reduction Is a Dream

What is most significant to the homeowner and why most start this tedious loan mod process is to obtain a loan balance reduction. In my experience, that is completely fanciful.  None that I have seen include a principal reduction, though many I meet claim to know someone else who got one.  I’ve never met one of these mythical creatures.

 Think about it: prices around here have dropped 40% or more in the last 2 years.  How do you feel about paying your $600,000 mortgage when similar homes in your area are now selling for $300,000? Yet, the banks are not offering these homeowners struggling to make their payments any reduction in their principal balance. Extending the loan to 40 years, yes–but no reduction in loan balance.

What’s the answer? Try doing the loan mod if you are willing to put in the time and effort involved. At the same time, though, I recommend attempting a loan restructuring. Next post will explain the process.

Tsunami of Foeclosures Coming

So much for all the “good” news coming out of  D.C. Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, B of A are all happy campers with their billions in profits, while the rest of us lose our jobs and watch our state sink into bankruptcy. No one ever mentions that, besides the TARP money since repaid,  Goldman Sachs got $12 Billion from AIG to cover hedge fund losses. And, of course, where did AIG get the dough to cover its insurance policies? Why, funny you should ask, that also came from tax payers…So, it’s kind of an endless circle of taxpayer funds creating “wealth” for these jokers while the rest of us starve. That’s capitalism, right?

But, back to real estate…What does all this have to do with real estate. Plenty, as it turns out. Chase and B of A are, of course, banks, now, in fact, the biggest banks in the country. That means they also control a majority of the mortgage loans and how the rising default rate is to be handled. In case you hadn’t heard, default rates are up and rising. Could that have anything to do with the also rising unemployment rate now over 10% in 30 states and 12.6% in California last time I checked. Here, even the “good” state jobs are now at risk and going down the tubes faster than your 5-year-old at Raging Waters.

With no job or prospect of a job, when underemployed or working only part-time or sporadically, home owners can’t cover their mortgage payments. Add to that, the factor of plunging prices. It’s estimated that by now, after more than a year of record foreclosures and drops in home values, 27% of all California home owners are under water, that is, they owe more than their homes are worth. Of course, the smart ones are short selling their homes. It’s hard to give up the old homestead and all the work and money put into it, but once the underwater mark hits 30% loss of equity, it really makes more sense to let it go. It will be years before that equity returns given the numbers involved.

home floating on waves

What about the refi program discussed in a previous post? For some, that might be an option. It’s no help if you’ve lost your job. You won’t qualify.  If you still have a job and can afford the payments, this is an option. Though, notice–you still owe the money your home is no longer worth. You do pobably have a better rate and more managable payments, but, the debt is still there.

What about the loan mod program also discussed in a previous post? Well, there we’re back to these big banks, Chase, B of A, Wells Fargo and all the rest. These banks do most of the loans in the country, so borrowers  have to apply to these banks to get  loan mods.  Obama’s Homeowners’ Stabilization program, announced amidst much hopeful optimism in March, has proved less than effective, shall we say. Chase trumpets that it has modified 138,000 loans since April. That sounds reasonably good, but the program was supposed to modify more than 4 million in 3 years…Not much of a start, so far…

Then, there’s B of A which says it’s done 45,000 loan mods since April. That’s for the ENTIRE COUNTRY.  Think about this: California ALONE had 135,431 notices of default [NODs] send out from January through March of this year. B of A and its newest acquisition, failed California-based Countrywide, probably account for at least 30% of those loans or 40,000 loans. So, B of A is basically DOING NOTHING to help at this time of NATIONAL CRISIS. And, remember 27% of California homeowners are under water and so need to have their loans modified. How many actual borrowers would that be? I don’t know, but we have 35 million people, so that’s got to be in excess of 1 million loans….Nationwide, in the first quarter 1.8 million homeowners fell more than 60 days behind on their loans, 15% more than the prior quarter [Q4 08]. To repeat: this is a NATIONAL CRISIS.

What is going to happen next? Is B of A going to change its corporate culture and start helping homeowners?  Not bloody likely. Digging deeper into the trough of public money is more apt  to be that bank’s continuing attitude.  Just try to do loan mods with Countrywide and B of A or short sales. They take forever–4 months is the minimum; there is no maximum time.  The paperwork demanded is just stunning. B of A NEVER, to my knowledge, forgives even one penny of any under water loan balance as some banks actually are doing.   Its idea of what it owes to the common good is EXACTLY ZILCH, NOTHING, NADA.

So, those foreclosures, kept off the market by useless cycling of paperwork in rejected refis and loan mods, will come onto the market, especially here in California.  Last summer, foreclosure sales statewide hit a high of 26,500 a month.  Before this year is out, we may well beat that record. I am one of many real estate brokers who supply lenders with estimates of value or broker price opinions [bpo] and I can say, anecdotally, that I am very busy, often doing 3, 4 or even 5 every day.  If  I am that busy, so are the others who do this work. That means so many foreclosures looming…

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More About Repos: Avoid Rookie Mistakes

Sign Of The Times - Foreclosure
Image by respres via Flickr

What’s the main attraction in a repo [REO=real estate owned, foreclosure]? Why price, of course. PRICE, PRICE, PRICE. Typically, repos can be priced as much as 30% below the market value of similar homes.

What’s the number ONE rookie mistake in buying a repo? Lowball offers. A lowball offer immediately identifies a buyer who has no idea about foreclosures. Buyers are already “stealing” a property in buying a foreclosure at the list price. Why do so many think they can offer 30% to 50% LESS than what the bank is asking? These very buyers are then “shocked,” “stunned” and out of the game when the word comes back that the property turns out to have 5, 10, 20 or even more offers.  If that property was the dream home, then it will be “the one that got away” because buyers had not done their homework or,possibly, were working with a rookie agent.

Here’s how banks come up with their prices for properties foreclosed upon and then offered for sale. Before foreclosure, the bank typically orders a drive-by BPO[broker’s price opinion] in which an experienced real estate agent takes pictures of the property, which is usually still occupied, from the street and then prepares a comprehensive analysis of the property’s current worth. The agent takes three active listings and three recent sold properties of approximately the same age, square footage, style and location to come up with a potential market price. During and after the foreclosure process, the bank orders up to seven BPOs at the varying stages, reflecting a declining market and, eventually, a vacant property. After the property is vacated and cleaned up, the bank also orders interior BPOs.

What this all means is this: the bank has a very good idea of the value of the property. The list price of a foreclosed home in then put at some point BELOW the normal market value. After all, as mentioned in a previous post, the buyer is not getting any disclosures. The bank will not do any repairs. Often, the bank will not do a termite clearance. The bank provides no home warranty. The buyer cannot talk to the bank to negotiate any little part of the transaction. So, the buyer gets a great deal on price.

If you want to be a successful repo buyer, make reasonable offers. 30% below an already 20%-below-market price is not reasonable.

Here’s another rookie mistake. Some buyers habitually make offers with the idea that after a home inspection, they will renegotiate the price or demand that repairs be made. If this is your strategy to get a repo even cheaper, quess what? It won’t work.  Banks offer their properties AS-IS. ALL banks offer properties AS-IS. If the property has no toilets or the walls are punched in, that’s how you will get it. You cannot do a home inspection and “discover” no toilets and then negotiate with the bank.The bank has already factored no toilets into the list price.

Here’s why this strategy will not work. First, the bank has already sent out contractors, agents, locksmiths, handy people, cleaners  to inspect the property and report back. Repos may be damaged, but they are always clean of debris. All traces of the previous occupants’ detritus have been removed. The repo will be clean, swept and neat, though faucets, lighting fixtures, A/C  compressors and the like may be missing or damaged. The locks will work and the property will be secure.  Second, except under very extraordinary circumstances nothing your home inspector can discover will move the bank to repair anything. Unless something has happened since the property was put on the market–a hurricane, tornado, flood, etc–that has substantially altered the condition of the home, the bank will simply move on to the next buyer or put the home back on the market.

The last rookie mistake was already mentioned in a previous post. Don’t figure you can make your offer and show proof  you can do it later. Make sure you have your ducks in a row BEFORE making that offer to the bank. You MUST have a pre-approval from a reputable lender to accompany your offer. In most cases, you cannot get it later.  Even if you are paying cash and banks, like everyone else, love cash, you still must show PROOF OF FUNDS. That can be a bank statement, a letter from your stock broker or whatever. Most repo sales agents operate on volume and have a fairly bureaucratized sales procedure demanding all parts of the offer, including proof the buyer is viable, be done at the time of the offer. Even most standard sales require this today. Sometimes, banks also require pre-qualification with a particular loan rep at a particular bank. A sucessful repo buyer must provide that pre-qual before making the offer.

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How To Buy A Repo

Elden P. Bryan Residence
Image by Floyd B. Bariscale via Flickr

Everybody wants to buy a repo? What’s a repo? It’s a lender-owned home, a repossession. What’s so special about a repo, you may ask?  Main difference is the price, the price, the price. Lenders have no emotional attachment to a property. They just want it off their books as quickly as possible. To that end, repos are frequently, but not always [pay attention: NOT ALWAYS] priced below market.

So, that’s good, right? What’s not to like? Buyers get a below-market home. Lender/seller gets the property off its books. What’s the problem here?

There are a few issues when buying a repo.. Here are a few for buyers to consider.

Condition

By law, lenders are not required to offer the usual transfer disclosures required in California and most other states in which the seller discloses all the material facts about the home, including any known defects.  Why do lenders not have to disclose? Because the bank has never lived in the home and, in fact, most likely knows nothing about it or its history.

Buyers of repos get none of the detailed information sellers love to impart to buyers about what was done to the house, by whom and when.  Frequently, repos are not in great condition, truth be told, though most of them will have been cleaned of debris and tidied by the listing agent’s cleaning crew.

Remember: the former owners lost the house because they couldn’t make the payments. More than likely, they couldn’t pay for furnace cleaning or roof leak repairs or any of the multitude of tiny and large repairs that homes we live in get from us every day. This deferred maintenance  can cause hidden damage.

Remedy: Get a thorough home inspection from a competent home inspector. If further inspections are suggested in the report–plumbing, HVAC, roof or whatever–get them. This property may be offered as a  may be a bargain price, but it’s still a lot of money. It may wind up as no bargain if the pool equipment is broken or the roof leaks.  Do yourself a favor and spend the money to get the suggested inspections.

The Negotiations

Another area of difference concerns the actual negotiations in purchasing the home. Normally, you make an offer, submit it to the seller, get an acceptance or a counter offer and then go into escrow. The procedure for a repo is relatively the same except the seller is a faceless bureaucracy and usually you and your agent have no communication whatsoever.

It’s often even difficult to get in touch with the “listing” agent because frequently these “agents” are faceless themselves, communication through websites, email and voice mail.  These companies often list   hundreds of repos,   each one as lovingly treated as a disposable fork on a picnic.

Each bank and each “agent” has a different technique in negotiating with buyers. And the strategy also depends on the property. If the property is among hundreds of other repos, as in, say, Moreno Valley or Fontana, it’s all about the numbers and getting a buyer quickly if at all.  If it’s a desirable property in a good area of Arcadia, for instance, it’s a different story, though, again, it’s really about the amount of money involved.

So, for some repos, you make your offer, the agent submits it to the bank quickly, it’s accpeted, and escrow begins. For others, many offers are received, so then the agent ,in consultation with the bank,  takes one of the offers and works with it, going straight to escrow. Sometimes in this scenario, the agent comes back with a multiple counteroffer from the bank asking all buyers for their “highest and best offer”. Then, from  those that come back, the bank selects the best and opens escrow.

What to beware of here? The auction effect…we all became familiar with this during the boom market and it’s far from dead. Buyers will always vie to get a good property at a good price. Prevent yourself from paying too much by keeping your emotions out of it, if possible, and setting a price beyond which you won’t go, no matter what. That will immunize you against the auction effect.

Financing

Is financing any different for a repo? Will I have to use the bank which owns the house? The short answer here is NO and No. Some banks will require that you pre-qualify with a specific lender in order to have your offer considered, but no one can require you to use that lender. As with new homes, though, sometimes the lender will offer more favorable terms just to have control of  the situation. Should you do it? By all means…more favorable terms are always good.

Repos are a bit different as far as the transaction goes. Many banks require their own forms which, of course, are there to minimize the bank’s liability.  California, in particular, has many buyer-protection laws. Banks cannot require you as part of the transactions to give up your rights.

But, the bank may require a shorter inspection term [the normal is 17 days] or provide stringent conditions if the buyer’s loan isn’t funded in the agreed-upon number of days, especially if the buyer is not using the bank’s lender.  That’s not so bad. It may keep your lender and your agent on their toes.

Another issue is termite inspection. Many buyers assume that a termite clearance is required by law. Not so–it’s often required by the terms of the buyer’s loan, but many loans don’t require it.  Many repo listings specifically say that the bank-owner will not provide a clear termite. In this case, it’s up to the buyer to get a termite inspection and pay for any damage.

Got your heart set on a repo? Get over it. Set your heart on a good deal whether it ocmes from a bank or a short sale or even a savvy seller. In fact, buying from a seller who prices his home to sell quickly is the best way to go. At least, that seller isn’t going to walk off with the kitchen faucet or leave a big hole punched in the bedroom door…

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Bankophobia: Don’t Let the Banks Give You a Bad Deal

Countrywide Financial
Image via Wikipedia

It seems I’ve developed a bad case of bankophobia lately. Clients are screaming about their miserable experiences trying to refi. Experts like William K. Black on Bill Moyer’s Journal, a formner regulator, reveal the Big Bankers are actually fraudsters and they know it. Almost everything I’m reading about the bailout of these pernicius institutions is making steam come out my ears.

Really, I  am a naturally optimistic person.  I rarely think ill of anyone without, of course, proof positive. I do exempt  Bernie Madoff, naturally; he’s pretty clearly nothing but a thief. Then, there’s Ken Lewis, CEO  of Bank of America–he’s a regular snake. Not only does he grab all the dough he can get from the tax payers, but he turns around, giving billions in bonuses to his cronies all the while trying to pull the rug out from regular working Americans who might try to level the playing fied by joining a union. That really steams me! These–hogs is the only term I can think for them–can never have enough for themselves, but they put up every barrier they can think of to prevent others from even having a steady income or a potential retirement. Maybe we should bring back the guillotine…Just kidding.  Then, there’s John Thain, lately CEO of Merrill Lynch, who gave out billions to his cronies with the connivance of Ken Lewis just before B of A took over his company.

This whole affair is sickening. The little that the present administration is doing for actual citizens includes The Making Home Affordable Plan offering 105% refis. These loans are now available and even some in the Southland could take advantage of the now amazingly low rates to do a refi. Don’t bet on it because these very same banks who received bailout money apparently don’t want you to get any advantage whatsoever. Sounds to be like Ken Lewisism gone amok. Here’s just a few examples of how hard they are making it.

First, many banks are applying super-tough appraisal conditions so homes don’t qualify.” Nope–we see your home as worth $310,000, not $312,000 so you don’y qualify. Next.”   Then, there’s the private mortgage insurance premium sticking point. Got PMI? Lenders like Wells Fargo and Countrywide won’t touch your refi. Together, they probably have half the loans in the country. Maybe later…they say.

If you have PMI with MGIC and it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest PMI company, then you must refi with your current lender. That’s MGIC’s rule, not the program’s. Don’t like your current lender? Tough tiddlywinks to you. MGIC owns you.

Loan fees–be sure to get a GFE–good faith estimate–in writing because some banks are making hay while the sun shines–what else is new?-and charging exorbitant fees. This is a federal law, so if  you can’t or don’t get one right away, walk right on by no matter how good the deal seems. Because–it isn’t. This is one of the oldest tricks in the lending business: promise them everything, but never put it in writing.

Here’s another sticky wicket: HELOCs–equity lines of credit. Either the bank issuing the HELOC refuses to subordinate, though it’s already subordinate, or the new bank says, “Oops, with the new loan combined LTV [loan to value] is too high. Can’t do it.” This is a variation on the appraisal gambit.

Then, there’s credit. You don’t have a 740 FICO? You’re out. And, you better have a job because you will have to qualify and you will have to reveal your entire financial picture. These last are not so bad to mymind. Now, at least we’re returning to sanity and trying to lend only to qualified borrowers. Trouble is Obama’s program is supposed to be helping”potentially troubled”  homeowners stay out of trouble.

Last but not least is the most infuriating and frustrating aspect of the whole process…Actually, this one has two intertwined parts. The first is the incredible voice maze you must navigate to talk to your bank. The unconscionable hold times we are all subject to these days. And, then, after waiting 45 minutes on hold, you get to speak to Joe Moron who tells you all kinds of false and crack-brain stuff–“You must be behind in your mortgage to do a refi”–Huh? “We’ve never heard of Obama’s plan. Making Home Affordable Plan? Never heard of it? We live on Planet Pluto.”  Sometimes you get to chat with a dingbat in the Phillippines or maybe Bangalore–always nice, always out to lunch.

If all else fails–somehow–you get disconnected.

These are a few of the reasons I’ve developed a bad case of bankophobia.

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