Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some thoughts on housing and foreclosures

by Bill McBride on 4/18/2012 07:40:00 PM

Some musings ... One of the "givens" for 2012 is that the number of foreclosures will increase following the mortgage servicer settlement agreement. But I've been wondering just how big that increase will be...

A key recent development is the decline in distressed sales; distressed sales are a combination of short sales and lender real estate owned (REO) sales. I've been tracking this for a couple of years, at first just using data for Sacramento, and more recently data for several other cities too (compiled by Tom Lawler). This data shows two important trends: 1) overall distressed sales have been declining, and 2) there has been a shift from REO sales to short sales.

Of course the percent of overall distressed sales could, and probably will, increase soon now that the mortgage settlement agreement has been signed off. But the increase might be less than many people expect. Here are a few reasons:

According to LPS, there are currently about 2 million properties in the foreclosure process and another 1.7 million loans 90+ delinquent. However many of these loans are in judicial states, and even with the mortgage settlement, it will take some time to work through the courts. So it is hard to imagine a huge wave of foreclosures, if anything it will be more like a sustained high tide in certain judicial foreclosure areas.

• Meanwhile the lenders are offering cash incentives to these same borrowers to do short sales. These incentives are one of the reasons short sales are now at about the same level as REO sales according to LPS. Just yesterday Fannie and Freddie announced new short sale timelines to try to streamline this process further. Sure short sales are still distressed sales, but the impact of short sales on the market is probably less than foreclosures. And more short sales will reduce the number of REOs on the market (listed inventory is what impacts prices).

• Meanwhile the GSEs are trying a new REO-to-rental pilot program, and the regulators are allowing banks to hold REOs as rentals for an extended period. This will probably also reduce the number of REOs hitting the market in the near future. These properties will eventually hit the market, but that is more an argument for why prices will not rise quickly as opposed to prices falling further.

• At the same time, the HARP refinance program is aimed at underwater borrowers who are current on their loan. These borrowers have been making payments for some time, and a new lower mortgage rate will incentivize them to keep paying their mortgage (and also reduce the time until the borrowers have positive equity). This will reduce the pipeline of new delinquencies. HARP is still ramping up, but the number of HARP refinance applications is up sharply according to the MBA.

All and all, I think the number of foreclosures listed for sale might be less than some people expect.

The distressed sales data that I post monthly will probably tell us the size of the wave. But this reminds me a little of the Option ARM issue a few years ago. At first everyone thought there would be a flood of new foreclosures when Option ARMs reset – but over time it became apparent that many borrowers defaulted before the reset, had received a modification, or had refinanced – and there was no flood of reset related defaults.

Last year, for housing, the key was the decline in inventory (something I've been watching closely for the last couple of years). This year inventory is still critical, but any change in the level of distressed sales will be especially important. Just jotting down some thoughts ...

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