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Thursday, March 27, 2008

The HELOC As Disability Insurance

by Tanta on 3/27/2008 08:58:00 AM

This morning we have Vikas Bajaj in the NYT reporting on second-lien lenders refusing to go quietly:

Americans owe a staggering $1.1 trillion on home equity loans — and banks are increasingly worried they may not get some of that money back.

To get it, many lenders are taking the extraordinary step of preventing some people from selling their homes or refinancing their mortgages unless they pay off all or part of their home equity loans first. In the past, when home prices were not falling, lenders did not resort to these measures.
Um. This isn't really a very helpful way to put it, you know. In the very concept of the "lien" is the idea that the lender gets to demand payment if you sell the property that is securing the loan, and in the very concept of "refinance" lurks the idea that you pay off the existing loan with the proceeds of the new one. These concepts are not "extraordinary."

What we mean here, I take it, is short sales and short refinances (or subordinations behind a distressed first-lien refinance). If so, we really ought to say that, because "in the past, when home prices were not falling," we didn't have a lot of short sales and short refis, so the occasion for second lienholders to object to them just didn't arise much.

The reason to insist on some clarity here is that I don't think it helps much to build up certain people's sense of entitlement on the matter. Or at least their occasionally fundamental confusion about what rights you give up to a lender when you sign this mortgage thingy.

There is an example in the Times article, of a couple who attempted a short sale which was derailed because the second lienholder wouldn't play nice:
Experts say it is in everyone’s interest to settle these loans, but doing so is not always easy. Consider Randy and Dawn McLain of Phoenix. The couple decided to sell their home after falling behind on their first mortgage from Chase and a home equity line of credit from CitiFinancial last year, after Randy McLain retired because of a back injury. The couple owed $370,000 in total.

After three months, the couple found a buyer willing to pay about $300,000 for their home — a figure representing an 18 percent decline in the value of their home since January 2007, when they took out their home equity credit line. (Single-family home prices in Phoenix have fallen about 18 percent since the summer of 2006, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller index.)

CitiFinancial, which was owed $95,500, rejected the offer because it would have paid off the first mortgage in full but would have left it with a mere $1,000, after fees and closing costs, on the credit line. The real estate agents who worked on the sale say that deal is still better than the one the lender would get if the home was foreclosed on and sold at an auction in a few months.
I'm not here to make up details not in evidence in a newspaper story, so bear that in mind. But my attention was caught by that detail about retiring due to an injury. As presented, the story seems to be that the McLains took out a HELOC in January of 2007, and at some point "last year" the borrowers fell behind in payments because of the disability. We aren't told by the Times whether the income troubles led to drawing down the HELOC, and then being unable to keep up payments, or if the HELOC had been drawn to the full $95,000 back in January of 2007, and subsequently the income troubles led to the McLains being unable to keep up the payments.

I bring this up only because the following item caught my eye yesterday (via Mish), from someone who apparently purports to be a source of personal finance advice:
As many readers know, I’m a proponent of keeping an untapped home equity line of credit (HELOC) at my disposal for major emergencies. This isn’t my emergency fund. It’s what I call my catastrophe fund.

I’ve always believed that keeping a HELOC readily available is the best insurance policy and the back-up plan for if / when the emergency fund runs empty. Think about it… being able to tap this money could buy us time in the event of job loss or illness. And time is money. . . .

The HELOC is there strictly as a backup plan. For a catastrophe. Period. End of story. But with that said, I’ve always looked at that line of credit as my money. Money I could access at any time. . . .

So it came as a surprise yesterday when we got the letter from Citibank about our $168,000 line of credit:
We have determined that home values in your area, including your home value, have significantly declined. As a result of this decline, your home’s value no longer supports the current credit limit for your home equity line of credit. Therefore, we are reducing the credit limit for your home equity line of credit, effective March 18, 2008, to $10,000. Our reduction of your credit limit is authorized by your line of credit agreement, federal law and regulatory guidelines.
Reduced to $10,000!? Hello!? Please don’t f-ck with my house in Newport Beach…

Of course, I’m calling them today to dispute it.
I left out the parts about how this writer is such a great credit risk now, and was when she qualified for the HELOC originally. I am merely struck by how unaware she is of the essential problem in her understanding of a HELOC as a kind of disability insurance: she is saying that she qualified for the line of credit as an employed, cash-flush borrower, but plans to use it only if she becomes . . . the kind of borrower who couldn't qualify for a HELOC.

Now, let me say that lenders were fully complicit in this idea; I heard more than a few sales pitches for HELOCs over the boom years based on this "do it just in case you need it" idea. But it was a self-defeating plan then and it is so clearly still one now: how do you get out of problems making your mortgage payment by increasing your mortgage debt--and not coincidentally decreasing your odds of selling your home should you need to?

More to today's point, how do you ask the HELOC lender to advance you money to pay the first lien lender with--I assume that's the idea of using the HELOC to "tide you over" in a bad patch, you're borrowing the first lien mortgage payments from the HELOC lender--knowing you aren't really (currently, at least) in any position to pay it back, and then ask the HELOC lender to let the first lien lender get all the proceeds in a short sale? Don't get me wrong: I fully understand why people hate lenders these days and think they're just getting what they "deserve." I'm just shocked at the naive assumption that they wouldn't fight back a little here.

As I said, I don't really know what the McLains' situation was, since we don't get much detail. But one can understand Citibank's near-total erasure of Ms. Newport Beach's unused HELOC as a sensible precaution on Citi's part, and not simply because home values are falling. Now is probably not a good time for HELOC lenders to be sitting on their duffs waiting for borrowers to run into financial trouble and use those HELOCs as a way to limp along to the point where the HELOC lender gets nothing in a foreclosure.

Of course Ms. Newport Beach believes that her potential use of a HELOC as "insurance" wouldn't be doomed to failure. Nobody ever believes that doubling down is doomed to failure; that's why they do it. But if in fact that's what the McLains did, it doesn't seem to have done anything for them except buy them time to negotiate a short sale that then fell through because CitiFinancial didn't like being the patsy at the table.