Jun. 11, 2008 09:36 AM
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
Next month, Michelle Augustine plans to walk away from her four-bedroom house in a Sacramento, Calif., subdivision and let the property fall into foreclosure. But before doing so, she hopes to lock in the purchase of another home nearby.
“I can find the same exact house as what I live in right now for half the price,” says Ms. Augustine, 44 years old, who runs a child-care service out of her home. She says she soon will be unable to afford her monthly payments, which will jump to $4,000 from $3,300 in August, and she doesn’t want to continue to own a home that is now worth $200,000 less than what she paid for it two years ago.
In markets hit hardest by falling home prices and rising foreclosures, lenders and brokers are discovering a new phenomenon: the “buy and bail,” in which borrowers with good credit buy a new home – often at a much lower price – then bail out of the “upside down” mortgage on their first home.
Homeowners are able to pull off this gambit – which some lenders and real-estate agents call mortgage fraud – by taking advantage of mortgage-lending practices that allow them to buy a new primary residence before their existing residence has been sold. And with the lending industry in disarray as it tries to restructure millions of mortgages, some boast they are able to pull off the strategy with ease.
In some cases, homeowners are coached through the buy-and-bail process by real-estate agents and brokers who see nothing wrong with it. Some blame the phenomenon in part on lenders’ unwillingness to cut deals or restructure loans made when home prices were inflated. “It’s just a business decision,” says Linda Caoili, a Sacramento real-estate agent who is working with Ms. Augustine and others who are considering walking away from their mortgages. “If you’re upside-down $250,000, why would you keep it? It just doesn’t make sense.”
To be sure, walking away from a mortgage, even if legal, has plenty of drawbacks: Borrowers lose the ability to take out unsecured loans, since foreclosures can stay on a credit report for seven years. In some states, lenders can sue for assets, including a new house. Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage underwriter, recently revised the amount of time borrowers with a foreclosure must wait to receive a home loan to five years from four. Proposed Fannie Mae guidelines, which could take effect later this month, also would require those borrowers to make a 10 percent down payment and meet a minimum credit score after the five-year period.
While buy-and-bail is on the rise, the practice doesn’t appear to be widespread. Credit is much tighter now than it was during the real-estate boom, and most families with an upside-down mortgage likely will hold on to their homes and hope the market improves in the future – even though many of them could lose their properties.
Still, with home prices falling rapidly in some parts of the country, a growing number of frustrated consumers are willing to take the risk – especially in so-called nondeficiency states such as California and Arizona, where it is more difficult for a lender to sue consumers who walk away from their mortgages. Borrowers who bought or refinanced their home with a personal line of credit, however, instead of a home-purchase loan – a common practice during the housing boom – could be sued by a lender in those states. Borrowers also could be on the hook if lenders can show that homeowners committed fraud by misrepresenting themselves on their loan application.
Yet even in cases in which a lender could attach a lien on the new home, some homeowners simply assume that lenders are too swamped. “So many people are foreclosing, is it cost effective for lenders to go after all of these people?” says Steve Hawks, a Las Vegas real-estate agent who handles lender-owned properties.
That works in the favor of borrowers such as Blair Morrow. Last year, he rented out his Sacramento home when he moved to Houston for a new job, but he lost those renters in February. He quickly arranged to buy a new home in Houston, fearing that his old residence would be foreclosed and he would take a big hit on his credit.
“I had 30 days to make a decision: Live in a rental house the rest of my life or buy a house and walk away from the one in California,” says Mr. Morrow, 56, who works at a car dealership. He wrestled with the decision for a while, but justified it once Countrywide Financial Corp., the lender for his first home, approved the new home loan. “Countrywide didn’t say peep,” he says. Countrywide didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Ms. Augustine, the Sacramento day-care provider, became a first-time homeowner in November 2006 by taking out two loans with nothing down to cover the $426,000 home purchase. With her home valued at about $220,000 now, she is actively looking in nearby communities for another one to buy before the bank forecloses on her current home.
The mortgage industry is starting to wise up to the practice and is scrambling to fight back. Buy-and-bail is “certainly fraudulent and unfortunately on an uptick,” says Gwen Muse-Evans, vice president for credit policy and controls at Fannie Mae. Although she doesn’t have data to quantify the size and scope of the trend, Ms. Muse-Evans says overwhelming anecdotal reports have prompted the agency to draft tougher regulations aimed at closing one big loophole that allows underwater homeowners to qualify for new home loans.
That loophole currently works like this: Homeowners provide a rental agreement showing that they will rent out their first home, and underwriters allow rental income to cover as much as 75 percent of the mortgage payments on the first home when determining whether the borrower can make payments on two homes. This allows homeowners to secure a second mortgage that they might not otherwise afford.
Under revised Fannie Mae guidelines, which could take effect next week, loan applicants who claim they will rent out their first home will have to produce supporting evidence, including an executed lease agreement. Borrowers also will have to prove that they can pay the mortgage, property taxes and insurance for both residences. The guidelines will make an exception only for borrowers who have at least 30 percent equity in their current home.
Of course, many individuals still can qualify for that second loan because of a strong credit and cash position. If they “have the intention of fraud, then at the end of the day there’s really little you can do to totally prevent that,” says Ms. Muse-Evans.
Some private lenders aren’t waiting for Fannie’s lead. In April, underwriters handling bank-owned properties at IndyMac Bancorp Inc. told brokers they would require borrowers purchasing new homes while retaining their existing home as a rental to prove that they could make full payments on both homes to qualify for a loan. A memo sent to a Southern California broker said the policy change was prompted by “losses from individuals walking away from properties after the acquisition of a new home.”
An IndyMac spokesman said the bank hadn’t changed its policies and had always “underwritten loans with an eye towards insuring that our borrowers could readily rent out their current property and/or reasonably support both payments.”
Realtors say the new guidelines could put further pressure on sales, but Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, says the impact of such guidelines on sales would be marginal. He calls Fannie Mae’s response appropriate because any artificial increase in home sales hurts the average consumer.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hawks, the Las Vegas broker, says he receives one to two dozen inquiries every week from individuals inquiring about a buy-and-bail. “People are starting to ask how much their good credit is worth,” particularly when their home is underwater by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The tactic doesn’t appeal to people such as John Ristuccia, a 48-year-old Buckeye, Ariz., paper-company sales director whose job was moved to Houston in August. He is trying to complete a “short sale” for $425,000 on his five-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home, which was appraised for $800,000 last year. In a short sale, a lender allows the sale of property for less than the amount due on the outstanding loan and often forgives the remaining debt.
Even though he might be able to qualify for a second home loan, Mr. Ristuccia says he wouldn’t consider sticking his bank with his suburban Phoenix property. “Just personally I’ve got a problem with that,” he says. “I really can’t put it in terms other than it feels wrong.”