Banks Halting Foreclosures to Avoid Upkeep
Banks are walking away from thousands of vacant properties after starting and then refusing to complete the foreclosure process because they do not want to pay for maintaining the homes.
The result: hundreds of thousands of homes are being withheld from the market, raising questions about whether the recent run-up in housing prices is artificial.
Meanwhile, former homeowners that have already left the property with the belief they lost the home to foreclosure are ending up on the hook for the unpaid debt, taxes and repairs.
Consumer advocates say the largest mortgage servicers are blatantly ignoring Federal Reserve guidance that require borrowers be notified if a foreclosure is initiated and then abandoned. They also are raising fair-lending concerns because abandoned foreclosures are more prevalent in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
“We’re seeing more and more, banks getting a judgment to sell a home but not taking it to a foreclosure sale,” says Thomas Fitzpatrick, an economist in the community development department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “Banks speak more openly about how if it’s not in their economic interest to foreclose, they’re not going to foreclose. It may cost more to cure the back taxes and bring the property up to code than they could ever get from selling the property itself.”
Fitzpatrick is helping draft what he calls an “overlay” law that would bring uniformity to the state foreclosure process and would require servicers to speed foreclosures of vacant and abandoned properties. The law, which is being worked on by a committee of the Uniform Law Commission, a non-profit group of judges, lawyers and state legislators, will be finalized in July 2014 and would still have to be passed by each state legislature.
“It’s a regulatory gap, or crack in the process,” says Judith Fox, an associate clinical professor at Notre Dame Law School, who is researching abandoned foreclosures.
Bank “walkaways” used to be extremely rare, but they have ballooned in the past year or so, resulting in a large number of homes stuck in foreclosure, sometimes for years.
More than 300,000, or 35%, of the roughly 1 million homes currently in the process of foreclosure are vacant and the servicer has not taken title to the home, according to new data from RealtyTrac, the Irvine, Calif., data firm. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office estimated the number of abandoned foreclosures to be between 14,500 to 34,600 homes.
“We call them zombie foreclosures,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, which estimated with the number of abandoned foreclosures by cross-referencing addresses of homes in the foreclosure process in the first quarter with vacant property data from the U.S. Postal Service.