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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Short sales: A win-win or a minefield?

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Sept. 18, 2008 – Short sales are a financial tactic that appears only in real estate downturns. Such sales are supposed to be a win-win that gets the seller out of a tight spot, a buyer a good deal and the bank off the hook.

But what sounds like a logical alternative to the usual outcome of defaults - foreclosure - can be a minefield. Critics charge banks with being shortsighted and a menace to neighborhood home values. Banks say they have obligations to their investors. Some say inexperienced real estate agents forward irrational offers and incomplete paperwork, then expect fast miracles from their inundated staff members.

The result inside this real estate downturn has often been frustration for sellers, buyers and banks. Banks have been resistant, operating in a new financial landscape that requires permission from global investors and other parties. Many real estate agents simply avoid short sales, steering buyers to bank repos. And sellers have become frustrated by complications and 60- to 90-day timetables.

"We did everything we could do, to do the right thing, and we're not getting anywhere," said Chris Britton of Orangevale, Calif. He said he's waited five months for his lender to respond to an offer.

The lender, Bank of America, insists that he pay thousands of dollars in late fees, he said, for accepting a short sale.

Britton's real estate agent, Kathy Gheen of Fair Oaks, Calif., said it's unreasonable. Meanwhile, Britton's buyer waits. All agree the house is headed to foreclosure if nothing changes.

Agents who try short sales often accuse banks of being shortsighted, even harming the market.

"If we could get to a point where a quarter of sales ... were short sales, we would see price stabilization more quickly. The neighborhoods would be maintained and the properties would not be invitations to crime," said Scott Thompson, partner in Mortgage Resolution Services in Carmichael, Calif.

Thompson, one of the Sacramento region's most successful short sale specialists, said banks too often ignore short sale offers, then lose $40,000 foreclosing and more selling the home in a declining market.

Bankers agree about foreclosure losses and say it may partly explain rising short sale numbers reported to the state.

But in places like California, where 78 percent of defaults end in foreclosure, according to DataQuick Information Systems, they say short sales are troublesome.

"All the lien holders have to release it. It may be palatable to us. It may not be palatable to another lender. That's one of the realities of short sales. It's a practical legal reality that has to be met," said David Bradley, spokesman for Bank of America and its recent Countrywide acquisition.

Banks prefer loan modifications over short sales, said Robert Satnick, president of the California Mortgage Bankers Association. Freezing or lowering interest rates helps people who want to stay with the house. Short sales aim at owners who just want out. He also cited problems with incomplete short sale applications.

"The banks are inundated," he said. "If you give them an incomplete application, it's going to the bottom of the pile."

Pepperdine University finance professor Len Rushfield, a former bank president, said short sales may be rising but are still too much work for most banks.

"It's easier to foreclose. There's a direct process there," he said. "It may be financially a better result if you get it done through a short sale, but getting it done is the blockage."

What's the No. 1 secret to getting a short sale done successfully?

"The first thing is to contact your servicer and let them know you intend to sell," said David Knight, vice president for Wells Fargo & Co.'s default and retention division.

"In this challenging environment, if you let us know early, we can get things ready, go through the financials and get ahead of the offer. Then we can make a decision quickly."

He said too often, people submit the entire packet with their first offer. Sometimes it's incomplete.

"If you have done your paperwork, you are significantly better off to benefit from the deal that comes in," he said.

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