Palm Springs Law Blog

Monday, August 20, 2012

What to Do About Upside-down Mortgages

I don’t handle most types of real estate issues in my practice, but so many of my bankruptcy clients are in dire straits because of their mortgage situation that I must try to prevent them from losing their homes. Nearly 10 million homeowners in the U.S. are at risk of foreclosure and need to take action.

We know that lenders contributed to, and sometimes caused the mess by offering risky loans to people, and then by foreclosing on many properties without following the rules.

In fact, a general lack of strict rules in the home loan industry often allowed unethical and predatory lenders to operate freely and without oversight. 

New federal and state guidelines are in place, with more on the way. There are programs to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. If you or someone you know is having difficulty making mortgage payments, or equity in the property is less than the mortgage, here is some information that may help:

  • First, NEVER pay an agency or organization an up-front fee to negotiate a loan

modification for you. In California, such fees are illegal. Even so, there are scam artists everywhere trying to take advantage of distressed homeowners. If you encounter one, report it right away to the California Department of Justice.

  • The Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) has been in place for some time for loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (about 60% of all California mortgages). It allows homeowners current on their monthly payments, but unable to refinance because of the drop in value of their homes, to refinance at today’s low interest rates and secure a lower monthly payment. But lenders were reluctant to negotiate with homeowners because of liability and other issues, strict requirements for homeowners’ credit ratings and income, and other tight rules. The original hope to help 3 to 4 million homeowners fell way short, with only about 822,000 actual mortgages refinanced.
  • HARP 2.0 is a redesigned refinance program which is taking effect right now. Many of the limitations and restrictions of the original plan have been removed, so that more lenders are likely to participate, and more homeowners likely to qualify. The program requires Fannie and Freddie to update their automated loan underwriting and approval software, which was to be completed in March 2012. You must have made at least 6 consecutive on-time mortgage payments, and your equity in the home must be less than 20%.
  • The nationwide settlement with 5 major banks, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial a few weeks ago, will reduce home loans for up to 1 million homeowners across the country. California will receive up to $18 billion, to be used to modify loans for homeowners who are behind in their payments, repair blight in neighborhoods where there were multiple foreclosures, and other actions to alleviate the abuses that occurred in the home loan industry. This agreement does not apply to home loans held by Fannie and Freddie.
  • California Attorney General Kamala Harris is promoting a package of bills called the California Homeowner Bill of Rights, which would prohibit many of the unethical and risky practices of lenders, write the terms of the 5 bank nationwide settlement into state law and apply it to all lenders, investigate and prosecute foreclosure crimes, and give homeowners, renters and blighted neighborhoods new rights when properties are underwater and/or subject to foreclosure.
  • The federal government has now negotiated a blanket grant of permission from many large lenders to allow homeowners to refinance their 1st mortgages when they also have a 2nd mortgage or home equity line of credit. Until now, many lenders holding 2nd loans refused to agree to refinancing of a 1st loan.
  • The Small Business Administration has relaxed its rules for refinancing mortgages on small firms’ commercial property. Small businesses can now use refinancing proceeds to turn their real estate equity into working capital, to be spent on salaries, rent, utilities, inventory and other items.

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