Latest scam: Fraudulent short sale approvals

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NEW YORK – July 13, 2012 – Each time the real estate industry changes, scam artists find a new way to commit fraud. In the latest scheme, they manage to duplicate short sale approval letters for extremely low amounts, enabling … Continue reading

Bank of America offers new loan modifications that reduce principal

MIAMI – May 9, 2012 – Bank of America is sending out letters to potentially thousands of struggling Florida homeowners to let them know they may be eligible for a reduction in their loan balance that may save them up to 30 percent in monthly payments, the lender announced Tuesday.

The letters will go out to more than 200,000 mortgage holders nationwide, with the first to arrive this week, the bank said. However, most of the letters will be mailed by the third quarter that starts July 1.

The latest loan modification offer is part of a $25 billion settlement involving Bank of America, four other major banks, 49 state attorneys general and federal officials.

Bank of America officials said they had no immediate number of how many South Florida mortgage holders would be sent the letters. “What I can tell you is that the heaviest concentration is in California and Florida, the largest of the hardest hit states,” said Jumana Bauwens, a spokeswoman for Bank of America Home Loans.

About 19,000 South Florida homeowners with Bank of America mortgages were at least 60 days late, Jessica Garcia, vice president for the bank’s national mortgage outreach, said last month.

To be eligible for the new loan modification, the Florida homeowners must have been at least 60 days behind on their payments on Jan. 31, 2012. They also must owe more on the mortgage than their home is worth today.

Their monthly payment – principal, interest, property taxes, insurance and any homeowner association fees – also has to total more than 25 percent of the family’s gross household income. “A key goal of mortgage modifications is to provide an affordable monthly payment, based on borrower’s ability to pay,” according to a Bank of America statement released Tuesday.

And to be eligible for the latest loan modification offer, homeowners should have loans owned and serviced by Bank of America – or serviced for another investor that has given the bank the authority to make the modifications.

Bank of America began reducing the principal on some home loans in March, first granting the reductions to homeowners already in a modification review process.

“So far under this early initiative, about 5,000 trial modification offers have been mailed, providing a potential total of more than $700 million in forgiven principal,” Bank of America officials said in a release.

The homeowners are required to make at least three payments on time before the modification can become permanent, the bank said.

“To the extent principal reduction and other modification tools help us turn mortgages headed for possible foreclosure into long-term performing loans, it will be positive for homeowners, mortgage investors and communities,” said Ron Sturzenegger, a Bank of America Legacy Asset Servicing executive.

In South Florida, Bank of America has seen a declining number of delinquent mortgages – from about 30,000 last June to 19,000 now. That mirrors a national downward trend, according to a recent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.

For more information, customers may call Bank of America at 877-488-7814.

Copyright © 2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Donna Gehrke-White. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Condo rental caps present thorny problems

Source: “Condo Owners Face Rental Hurdles,” The Wall Street Journal (April 28, 2012)

MARGATE, Fla. – May 3, 2012 – More home sellers in recent years have considered the role of landlord as they wait for a stronger market to sell or simply because they see a potential profit in renting. But for condo owners, renting out their homes isn’t always easy.

More condo associations have instituted stricter caps to prevent too many homeowners from renting out their place. While rental caps have been in place for years at many buildings, stricter caps – which could permit, say, only 20 percent of the units to be rented out at a time – mean that some homeowners must wait a long time before they can rent out their unit. These homeowners argue that the rental caps force them to sell at a loss, stay put or even fall into foreclosure.

Real estate agents say the stricter rental caps potentially hurt home sales too. Potential condo buyers may eye those rental caps as a negative, particularly young professionals who say that if a job relocation offer comes along, they’d be stuck selling at a low price and wouldn’t have the option to rent.

Condo associations say the rules are in place to help homeowners, not hurt them. Several argue that homeowners tend to take better care of their homes than renters. They also point to lenders that want the number of rentals kept relatively low. For purchasers getting a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage, a building’s owner occupancy has to be equal or greater than 50 percent. Conventional loans also often have owner-occupancy requirements for mortgages on condo developments.

Tightening the rental caps may “push more people onto the foreclosure path,” Donna D. Berger with Katzman, Garfinkel & Berger in Margate, Fla., told The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, loosening rental caps can “jeopardize owners’ ability to have purchasers qualify for a federally backed mortgage.”

Florida foreclosure limbo

April 30, 2012 – Chris McLaughlin

Banks that made reckless home loans in south Florida have been tiptoeing away from foreclosures in a tactic designed to cut their losses. The result: Orphaned, dilapidated homes dot the landscape from Kendall to Lake Worth.  There are no owners willing to claim and care for them.  A months-long Sun Sentinel investigation of property code violations involving abandoned homes uncovered case after case in which banks launched foreclosure lawsuits but then stalled or avoided taking ownership. In effect, the banks legally sidestepped responsibility for the empty homes, causing great harm to neighborhoods.  The real estate industry calls such properties “bank walkaways.” They are no longer maintained by their legal owners, whether they were investors bailing out of unwise deals or families in financial ruin who decamped.  Nor are they being tended to by lenders, which have halted foreclosure proceedings because the remaining equity in the properties is deemed inadequate to cover the banks’ costs to reclaim title and maintain, refurbish and sell them.  The practice has contributed to South Florida’s foreclosure “limbo” problem in which thousands of vacant homes are stuck in unsettled court proceedings for years.

South Florida housing prices have hit bottom, Zillow analysts declare…..

By KIMBERLY MILLER
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

There are three little words South Floridians have longed to hear since the housing slide began: “We’ve hit bottom.”

Analysts at the online real estate database Zillow are declaring just that for Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties in a report to be released today that shows tri-county home prices bottomed out in the latter part of 2011.

Although the first quarter Zillow Home Value Index was down 2.3 percent in Palm Beach County on a year-over-year measure to $140,600, small increases in monthly and quarterly measures were enough for senior Zillow economist Svenja Gudell to predict an end to free-falling prices.

“The last two years we’ve seen the rate of decline slow and now we’re seeing this uptick for the first time, where instead of sloping down, the curve is sloping up,” Gudell said.

Of the 30 largest metropolitan areas measured by the Seattle-based Zillow, 14 were declared to have hit bottom either at the end of 2011 or between January and March of this year, including Orlando and Tampa.

The optimism was echoed by Florida International University real estate economist Ken Johnson, who began predicting a bottom in November when prices hit 2002 levels.

“It just makes really strong financial sense to buy right now,” Johnson said. “We can’t go down anymore.”

Zillow’s index considers the value of all homes, not just those that sold during the measurement period, and South Florida Realtors are often skeptical of the company’s South Florida data. Zillow’s website states that as of February, its estimates were within 5 percent of the actual sales price of a South Florida home just 27 percent of the time. About 49 percent of the time the estimates were within 10 percent of the price.

Zillow estimates the national home value during the first quarter of 2012 was $146,200, a 3 percent decrease from the same time in 2011, and predicts the country as a whole won’t hit bottom until the end of the year.

That’s more in line with some other reports released this week that offered mixed signals on the state of the housing market.

Nationwide, new home sales in March fell from the previous month, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report released Tuesday, while the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index was down 3.5 percent in February from the same time in 2011.

South Florida, however, was a bright spot in Case-Shiller, showing a 0.6 percent bump up from January and a 0.8 percent increase from February 2011.

Gudell said investors are driving South Florida’s price increases, which Zillow estimates will climb 5.6 percent in the next year.

Still, there are 373,550 foreclosure cases backlogged in Florida’s courts that could depress prices once they hit the market. Johnson said he’s less concerned about the so-called shadow inventory because people are finding creative ways to dispose of current foreclosures, such as with bulk sales.

“They may hinder the speed of the bounce-back, but I don’t see prices coming down anymore,” Johnson said. “My hopes and intuition tell me it will be a slow but steady recovery.”

Bank of America invites 19,000 distressed homeowners to Miami Beach for help

South Florida Business Journal by Brian Bandell, Senior Reporter
Date: Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 12:55pm EDT

Brian BandellSenior Reporter – South Florida Business Journal

Bank of American has invited more than 19,000 homeowners in South Florida with late payments to the Miami Beach Convention Center to help them work out their mortgages.

The bank (NYSE: BAC) reserved 140 rooms for the event, taking place Thursday through Saturday. Jessica Garcia, a VP in national mortgage outreach for Bank of America , said it is bringing 50 customer specialists and 30 underwriters to work with homeowners. Most of them have loans that Bank of America is servicing for investors.

Bank of America has about 1 million mortgages under servicing in Florida, and about 22 percent of them are delinquent, she said.

Garcia said any customer who is 60 days or more late on their mortgage payment is encouraged to attend, but they should call ahead (855-201-7426) and have their financial records ready to present. That includes pay stubs, tax returns and bank statements.

Bank of America has many different ways to help homeowners, depending on their financial capabilities and what the investor in their loan will allow, Garcia said. The solutions could include a 90-day forbearance, adding missed payments to the end of the mortgage term or reducing the interest rate, she said. Generally, the goal is to make the mortgage payment no more than 31 percent of the borrower’s monthly income, she said.

“If we can do a loan modification and the customer wants to remain in the home, and they want to be with us a few hours, then we can do it right there,” Garcia said.

Bank of America also has sped up the process to approve short sales, Garcia said.

Florida Realtors issued a press release on Tuesday praising Bank of America’s decision to reduce its short sales approval process to 20 days.

No. 33 Mourning puts 33 Arvida Parkway on the market

South Florida Business Journal by Jeff Zbar

The Miami Heat’s No. 33 has put 33 Arvida Parkway on the market.
The Gables Estates home, which former Heat player Alonzo Mourning and his wife, Tracy, purchased in 2005 for $12.75 million, is a 13,086-square-foot residence that sits on a 35,389-foot lot with 240 feet of bayfront view, according to Miami-Dade County records, which lists the couple as the owners.
The home is listed for more than $13.99 million. Lourdes Alatriste, the luxury real estate agent with Engel & Völkers Florida who has the listing, would not confirm the owner.
Alatriste did say that the eight-bedroom, eight-bathroom home is a remarkable estate. Designed by Miami-based architecture firm Ramon Pacheco & Associates and built by Dimond Development in 2004, it has marble and wood finishes throughout, a gourmet kitchen, spacious living and dining areas, a library and an elevator. The master suite features abundant closet space and its own fireplace. A “smart house,” almost all electronics are controlled by two panels.
Outside, the home features a pool and spa, and a four-car garage.

What you should not do when listing your home….

Study: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan lead Florida in complaints

Senior Reporter – South Florida Business Journal

Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank   and JPMorgan Chase Bank    are the institutions Florida consumers complained about to regulators the most in 2011, according to a study by Miami-based bank analyst and economist Kenneth H. Thomas.

Working through his company K.H. Thomas Associates, Thomas obtained records of complaints filed against financial institutions to the Florida Office of Financial Regulation’s    Division of Financial Institutions, the state’s chief bank regulatory agency.

Florida consumers lodged 1,231 complaints against banks in 2011, down from 1,379 in 2010. However, that’s still significantly higher than the 992 complaints from 2008 – when the financial meltdown was just starting to take hold.

The trend in hard-hit South Florida wasn’t so positive. Complaints from Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties increased to 180 in 2011 from 149 the year before. Thomas said it’s because the housing problems are worse in South Florida.

“Even though the economy has improved in the state, we are still the epicenter for the housing crisis,” he said. “People stilling trying to do workouts and modifications, and they aren’t getting the help they are looking for from these banks.”

Filing a complaint against a bank is a serious matter, Thomas noted, as it involves filling out a five-page form and attesting that the information is true. He recommends that people try to work out issues with their bank before contacting the OFR.

“To get to that point, you have to be really upset,” he said.

The OFR complaint page is here.

The most common complaint in 2011 was account balance disclosures, at 28 percent of all filings, according to Thomas. That includes disputes about overdraft fees – the subject of many lawsuits against banks – and other automatic fees.

The second most frequent complaint was mortgage problems, at 23 percent. Other common issues were general loan complaints and credit card disputes.

Thomas’ records show that most complaints the OFR received in 2011 were referred to federal regulators to follow up on. Only 7 percent of complaints were found to have no violation, and 4 percent were resolved by the OFR.

On the bright side, Thomas noted several banks didn’t receive any complaints. That includes Miami-based City National Bank    of Florida and Northern Trust    .

City National Bank President and CEO Jorge Gonzalez said his institution excels in customer service because it has a 65-year history in the state and it makes sure its bankers don’t have too many clients to service.

“If a banker has 20 relationships, they can probability deliver a high level of service to everybody, but if they have 100 relationships, they can probably only deliver a high level of service to a few of them,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a slightly more expensive model, but you need that for best-in-class service.”

Last year, City National hired Steven Clark as its service director. Clark has experience with customer service in both banking and hotels, such as the Ritz-Carlton. He said his goal is to create a concierge-level customer experience.

Gonzalez said it’s worth it to spend on customer service because that reduces client turnover, which is expensive. He said it’s important to treat all customers the same – no matter how much money they have. Some institutions offer higher levels of service to wealthy clients.

Many banks, especially those struggling with losses, have cut back on staffing levels in recent years. That includes top complaint-getter Bank of America    (NYSE: BAC). Officials with BofA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Space Coast Credit Union had the most complaints of Florida-based institutions and was in fifth overall. Thomas noted that SCCU had a 0.6 percent deposit market share in Florida in 2011, but attracted 6.5 percent of all complaints.

SCCU spokeswoman Meredith Gibson said the credit union changed its Member Rewards relationship pricing program in 2011 for all 370,000 members, and that resulted in some people moving to different types of checking accounts. She said former members of Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union    , which SCCU merged with in 2009 to enter South Florida, have complained at a higher rate than historical SCCU members.

“They experienced many charges as a result of the merger, and they continue to be unhappy with SCCU’s practices in some areas,” she said. “A particular market condition that caused complaints in 2011 is dissatisfaction with the disposition of requests for mortgage loan modifications. While SCCU has been actively working with members who are experiencing hardships, there are cases where we cannot provide a solution that is satisfactory to the borrower.”

Gibson said SCCU has an internal system for tracking and responding to customer complaints, and these entries are regularly reviewed by senior management.

“To date, the OFR has not found that SCCU is in violation of any regulation and has closed all cases,” she said.

Considering that BofA holds a 19.1 percent deposit market share in Florida, Thomas said its 13.6 percent share of all complaints isn’t that bad. Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC), SunTrust (NYSE: STI), Regions Bank    (NYSE: RF) and BB&T    (NYSE: BBT) also had a lower ratio of complaints compared to their deposit market share.

However, both JPMorgan Chase Bank (NYSE: JPM) and Citibank    (NYSE: C) had a high share of the complaints compared to their place in the Florida deposit market, Thomas’ study found.

The most banks that received the most complaints in Florida in 2011 were:

  • Bank of America and affiliates: 172
  • Wells Fargo Bank and affiliates: 115
  • JPMorgan Chase Bank and affiliates: 99
  • Citibank and affiliates: 53
  • Space Coast Credit Union: 48
  • SunTrust Bank and affiliates; 48
  • Regions Bank: 25
  • BB&T: 24
  • HSBC Bank and affiliates: 19
  • BankAtlantic (NYSE: BBX); 18
  • Capital One (NYSE: COF): 18

BRACE YOURSELF FOR TRIPWIRE IN THE HARP PROCESS

March 02, 2012 12:00PM

By Kenneth R. Harney

The most ambitious federal mortgage program to date aimed at millions of underwater homeowners is poised to take off in the coming two weeks, yet some key issues could hinder borrowers’ participation. One of them involves something most owners know nothing about: Who was your mortgage insurer on your underwater loan?

Though it was announced by the Obama administration late last year, the so-called “HARP 2.0″ — the second version of the Home Affordable Refinance Program — will only hit full stride around the middle of this month, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac finish tweaking their automated underwriting systems to accept applications, and lenders and mortgage insurance companies start handling large volumes of requests.

The revisions are crucial for owners who have outstanding mortgage balances in excess of 125 percent of the current resale values of their homes. Under the second version of HARP, there is no upper limit on permissible loan-to-value ratios, or LTVs. You can owe twice or even three times the value of your home and still qualify for a refinancing at today’s low interest rates. The earlier version imposed a limit of 125 percent, which cut out millions of the hardest-hit victims of the real estate bust.

The latest HARP also comes with streamlined underwriting — no requirement for physical appraisals in many cases, speedy processing and elimination of some of the deal-breaker fees imposed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in recent years.

The objective, federal officials say, is to get it right this time around by removing the previous obstacles to widespread participation by lenders and severely underwater borrowers. Industry studies estimate that as many as 6.9 million loans could fit the broad requirements for refinancing, but that far fewer — somewhere around 2 million borrowers — are likely to qualify on all the detailed eligibility criteria.

Among the key rules:
— Only loans owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are eligible. Underwater borrowers who have FHA, VA or other types of mortgages are not. Both companies’ websites offer “look up” features that tell you whether they own your loan.
— Your mortgage must have been purchased or securitized by either company no later than May 31, 2009, and must have an LTV ratio in excess of 80 percent.
— You must be current on your loan with no 30-day late payments during the six months preceding application and no more than one late payment during the last 12 months.

If you think you qualify right now, you can apply to your mortgage servicer and ask how to proceed. Once the fully automated program gets going in a couple of weeks and your LTV is higher than 125 percent, you should also be able to shop around among other lenders who are large enough to run servicing operations of their own.

But be aware of a little-noticed glitch that has arisen in the program that could hamper your opportunity to refinance. Some lenders may not want to proceed with your application solely because of a detail buried in your loan documents that was always beyond your control — the name of the mortgage insurer on your current loan. If it is United Guaranty, they may set your application aside because that firm alone has not agreed to adhere fully to the streamlined procedures other insurers accepted as part of the basic deal with the White House, Fannie and Freddie to kick-start the revised refi program.

The issue is technical and complicated — United Guaranty has refused to waive its rights to force lenders to repurchase what it considers badly underwritten loans, and is requiring additional underwriting in some cases. All other private mortgage insurers have waived their rights. The net effect of United Guaranty’s policy, say lenders and federal officials, is to disrupt the intended fast and efficient processing of HARP refi applications — potentially denying lower interest rates to as many as 10 percent to 15 percent of underwater borrowers who might otherwise qualify.

Some major lenders, such as Quicken Loans, said in interviews that they will have to either set aside or reject HARP applications where the original loan carries United Guaranty insurance. United Guaranty, a subsidiary of giant insurer AIG, said in an email statement to me that it “fully supports the Obama administration’s efforts” in revising HARP, and that only a “minority” of its insured mortgages should be affected by its policy disagreement with the rest of the industry.

Bottom line for you if you’re deeply underwater and interested in a HARP refi: Proceed with your application anyway, but be aware there are tripwires and snares that could derail you.
Ken Harney is a syndicated real estate columnist.