One of the Times’ best reporters, Gretchen Morgenson, has a great article in last Sunday’s paper about the difficulties in finding anyone at a lender with the knowledge and authority to rework a mortgage loan. Much of what she writes of: missing documents, no records of who holds title, no idea who even still holds the loan, is also applicable to the mess one encounters when trying to buy a house when the borrower’s in trouble.
A commentator to this blog suggested that buyers skip the services of agents and just call the work-out department of a local bank where, he promised, the caller would find any number of helpful individuals eager to do a quiet deal to get a bad loan off their books. If only.
My guess is that the commentator still clings to the vision, accurate thirty years ago, of a friendly hometown bank that loaned money to George Bailey’s pal, Ernie the taxi driver, and then held that loan while Ernie drove fares around Bedford Falls and earned enough to pay it all back. Should Ernie get drunk, wreck his taxi and default on his loan then someone who wanted to buy Ernie’s house could call up Uncle Billy who, eye visor on, sat in a back room toting up figures and calculating what price the Savings and Loan could accept while still remaining solvent.
But Mr. Potter runs Bedford Falls now, not George, and Potter grabs Ernie’s loan, bundles it together with those of all the other borrowers in town and ships the whole package off to Wall Street where wizards combine those loans with a million others, pay Moodys to declare them all safe as all get-out, then slice and dice them and sell off the slices to people all around the world. So now, when you want to buy Ernie’s house, who do you call? Mr. Potter doesn’t have the loan and is in no position to discuss the matter (as if he’d even take your call, the bastard!). The Wall Street Wizards have no idea who owns what slice of Ernie’s loan and don’t even know who Ernie is. And they sure as heck aren’t interested in acknowledging a problem because they sold it off and pocketed their profit five years ago. Forget it, Buddy.
So Ernie’s up the creek. He’s got a buyer for his house who is willing to pay enough, if not to make Ernie whole, then at least enough to pay off most of the loan and reduce Ernie’s liability, but there’s no one around to deal with the buyer or accept his money. The house sits, with a forelorn Ernie languishing inside it, drowning his sorrows with Wild Turkey until a sheriff shows up, throws Ernie over the bridge, with no Clarence to save him, and takes possession of the house for some banker in Shanghai. No maintenance is performed, the house deteriorates and, finally, is sold for pennies. No one is better off.
California’s home sales are up these past few months because so many loans have been foreclosed and title has passed to someone with authority to unload the foreclosed houses for pennies on the dollar. It would seem to make sense for lenders in the east to save time and start recouping their losses by working with buyers and sellers now, cooperating in sales that could bring in more money than a foreclosure sale, years before the actual foreclosure. But no one seems to have any reason to do that. As noted, the loans have been sold off to foreigners and other chumps, the banks are failing anyway and their staffs have all been fired. So unless something changes, I think we’ll continue to see desperate sellers cling to their houses and their prices, frustrated buyers walk away, and sales continue to stagnate. A cheery picture, all in all.
Update: More on the difficulties of finding anyone to listen to a deal proposal. “Loan services are overwhelmed”. I still think that an aggressive lender could get organized, get rid of its crap and be years ahead of its competition when the economy recovers. Maybe Dick Fuld could help, if he’s not too busy.