By Les Christie
Reducing the amount that struggling homeowners owe on their mortgages is proving to be a more effective way to prevent foreclosures than other methods, such as reducing interest rates or postponing payments, a new report finds.
In a report presented this week, Amherst Securities Group said that when principal reductions brought mortgages near the home's market value, borrowers were substantially less likely to fall behind on payments again and lose their homes.
Only 12 percent of borrowers who received principal reductions re-defaulted in 2011, Amherst found. That's compared with 23 percent of borrowers who received mortgage modifications with interest rate reductions (but no principal reduction) and 30 percent who received forbearance, which postpones their debt repayment.
"[Modifications] with principal forgiveness are apt to be most effective, as the borrower no longer owes the money -- so he is no longer hopelessly underwater," said Laurie Goodman, Amherst's housing market analyst and one of the authors of the report.
The success that these principal reductions have had in turning delinquent borrowers back into paying clients has led many lenders to step up debt forgiveness on the loans in their own portfolios.
So far this year, principal reductions have accounted for 40 percent of the modifications done by the banks, up dramatically from 25 percent in 2011 and 11 percent in 2010, according to Amherst.
The mortgage servicers cannot forgive debt on loans that are owned or backed by one of the two government-controlled mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, however, and they are limited in what they can forgive on loans owned by investors.
That means, of the vast majority of loans -- 6 million since April 2009, according to the Treasury Department -- only a fraction have received debt forgiveness. That may be changing, though.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which controls the majority of outstanding mortgages through its oversight of Fannie and Freddie, has thus far prohibited the mortgage giants from including debt forgiveness as part of their mortgage modifications.
Last month, however, Fannie and Freddie announced they would participate in two programs in California and Nevada that will use part of a $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund to pay down loans the companies own or back.
However, the move will not cost Fannie and Freddie anything and is a far cry from the principal reduction that private mortgage servicers are extending to borrowers.
Read more on this story at CNNMoney.
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