Mortgage Modifications: Why a Third Are Canceled

The Treasury building. One-third of mortgage modifications are being cancelled.The federal government says foreclosure prevention has helped millions of people. But sometimes it seems hard to find a pundit or news story that mentions foreclosure prevention program without using the word "failed," often in the headline.

Whom should you believe?

Government officials say 2.8 million homeowners at risk of foreclosure have had their home mortgages modified, lowering monthly payment by an average of about $500 since April 2009. But critics point out that not all of those modifications have lasted.

For example, of the 1.2 million trial modification started so far through the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), about a third, or 429,696, have been canceled, according to the latest reports. Many skeptics worry that foreclosure prevention has merely delayed foreclosure for millions of homeowners who are still likely to eventually lose their homes.

First, let's look at the big number: the 2.8 million modifications claimed by the government. That includes the 1.2 million HAMP trial modifications, 400,000 modifications through the Federal Housing Administration, and another 1.2 million loan modifications negotiated by HOPE NOW, a national coalition including government-approved loan counselors, mortgage companies and investors.

Based partly on these modifications, officials are taking credit for stabilizing a collapsing housing market. "We already know that due to the Obama administration's efforts, the housing market is significantly better than anyone predicted a year ago," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.

But that still leaves the question of the what happened to the close to half-a-million people who had their trial modifications canceled. They were kicked out of the program for a range of reasons: Some had mortgage payments already less than 31 percent of their income, missed trial payments or had incomplete or unverifiable documentation, according to Treasury officials.

According to a January statement by JPMorgan Chase, for every 100 trial modifications begun through the fall of 2009, a quarter had not paid as agreed. Another 29 borrowers did not submit all the required documents. "Many borrowers return forms missing key information (signatures, Social Security numbers, etc.) or do not return one of four required documents," according to a statement from Chase. Another 13 out of a 100 borrowers are not eligible for HAMP but will qualify for another type of loan modification and 33 out of 100 borrowers are able to be underwritten for permanent HAMP modifications.

What happened to these people? How were they "helped?"

It now appears that about half of the borrowers that didn't qualify for HAMP had their loans permanently modified anyway by their loan servicers under alternative programs, according to a survey of the eight biggest loan companies in the HAMP program. Another quarter of the canceled modifications were still awaiting action by the lenders, according to the survey. The remaining quarter of the canceled modifications ended in a variety of ways, ranging from a payment plan, a loan payoff, a bankruptcy filing to knock out heavy credit card debts, or a short sale. Only 7 percent had gone to foreclosure by the end of May.

And here's another unexpected thing -- 10 percent of the loans that had their modifications canceled are now current. The borrowers got out of foreclosure and kept their homes without any help from the program. It's not clear from the report where these borrowers got the money to get up to date on their loans. Some may have had the money all along. Others borrowers who had lost income may have found new employment.

The survey results are a surprise for all the pundits, myself included, who thought loans that had their trial modifications canceled would be headed straight to foreclosure.

Of course, the future is still unclear for many borrowers who entered foreclosure-prevention programs. More than 400,000 borrowers still have unresolved HAMP trial modifications. Researchers and officials have also begun to track the hundreds of thousands of borrowers with permanent modifications, to see how many slip back into foreclosure, according The Associated Press.

Whatever you think of the federal plan to stop foreclosures, the last page of the latest government-issued Housing Scorecard report has some important numbers. In addition to the tally of temporary and permanent modifications, there's the number of borrowers who are "underwater," meaning they owe a larger balance on their home mortgage than the home is now worth: 11.3 million, according to First American CoreLogic. These people might not all give up their homes to foreclosure, but they are vulnerable to new economic shocks. The report also counts 2.4 million seriously delinquent loans, according to LPS-McDash and HUD. Finally, officials count 3.6 million vacant homes held off the market, according to the Census Bureau. Those homes will eventually have to be sold.

So, no matter what you think federal foreclosure prevention effort -- and I think the feds are doing better than anyone gives them credit for -- the housing market still faces huge challenges that won't go away soon.


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