Month: January 2012

Tax relief on mortgage debt forgiveness ends in 2013, so hurry

The tax-relief law allows homeowners to exclude from income certain debts forgiven by their lenders. The tax break expires Dec. 31, 2012, but keep in mind that a short sale or foreclosure can take many months.

January 29, 2012|By Lew Sichelman LA Times

Reporting From Washington — The window is closing rapidly on one of the most important tax-relief provisions enacted by Congress during the housing crisis to help financially strapped homeowners.

Although the 2007 law that allows taxpayers to exclude from income the amount of debt that is forgiven or canceled by their lenders doesn’t expire until Dec. 31, it’s likely to take every bit of the next 11 months for financially troubled homeowners to persuade their banks to either foreclose or allow their houses to be sold for less than they are worth.

Although owners who are struggling to hold on to their homes shouldn’t throw in the towel solely because of the pending tax bite, it is certainly something to consider.

Under the tax code, borrowed money need not be reported as income because you have an obligation to repay. But if the lender subsequently cancels what you owe, the IRS requires that you report that debt as income because the duty to repay it no longer exists.

So, if you owe $250,000 and your lender forgives $50,000 of that debt in a $200,000 refinancing, that $50,000 is considered income. If your combined federal and state marginal tax rate is 36%, you would owe $18,000 in taxes.

Under the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007, though, taxpayers are allowed to exclude from income the discharge of debt on their principal residence — at least until 2013.

So when your lender agrees to a short sale, there is no tax on the difference between the selling price and the amount you owe. When your lender forecloses, there is no tax on the canceled debt. Even when you refinance at a lower loan balance, there is no tax on the difference between what you owed on the old loan and what you owe on the new one.

But unless Congress extends the law — and there is no indication lawmakers are even thinking about that — all residential mortgage debt relief that takes place on or after Jan. 1, 2013, will once again be considered taxable income.

Why worry about this nearly a year before the law changes? Because the timelines on debt forgiveness decisions by lenders are absolutely horrendous.

As of October, it was taking lenders an average of 674 days to process a foreclosure, according to Lender Processing Services, a Jacksonville, Fla., mortgage technology firm. That’s more than 22 months, or almost two years from the time the process starts to when the property is actually repossessed. And lenders don’t even start the process until an average of 391 days after last receiving a payment.

Of course, each state has a different timeline.

There are no hard and fast numbers when it comes to short sales or refinancings. But they also can be long, drawn-out transactions.

According to a nearly year-old survey by Equi-Trax Asset Solutions, a Santa Barbara analytics company, it can take four to nine months for underwater borrowers to persuade their lenders to sign off on a deal in which the lender will net less than what the borrower owes.

Eighteen percent of the 600 agents polled said short sales can be closed in less than three months if the stars line up just right. But almost 10% said these transactions require more than 10 months to complete.

A refinancing that involves principal amnesty is probably the quickest of the three debt-forgiveness scenarios. At Carrington Mortgage Services, a Santa Ana-based lender licensed in 32 states, a “short-refi” takes 45 to 60 days.

There are many factors besides a tax break to consider when deciding whether to give up your house. What will a foreclosure or short sale do to your all-important credit score? How long will you be precluded from buying another house? Will the extra income push you into a higher tax bracket?

As always when it comes to such matters, you should consult a tax professional before making any decisions.

Here are a few of the other important rules that you and your tax person need to know:

• The debt-relief law applies only to debt incurred to buy, build or improve a personal residence.

• The law does not apply to vacation homes or investment properties.

• The maximum amount you can treat as indebtedness is $2 million, or $1 million if you are married but filing separately.

For more detailed information, see IRS Publication 4681.

Tight-fisted mortgage lenders pressure home sales

By John W. Schoen, Senior Producer
Jan 27th 2012

Home prices have fallen by a third since 2006, creating tremendous bargains for home buyers. Mortgage rates are at rock-bottom lows, making houses more affordable than they have been in decades. Yet home sales last year fell to the lowest levels since the government began keeping records in 1963.

One big reason: mortgage bankers have gotten a lot choosier about approving loans, according to a report by Goldman Sachs economists Hui Shan and Jari Stehn. By some measures, they’re pickier than they were before the housing boom took off.

With anecdotal evidence showing that home mortgages are harder to get, the economists crunched Federal Reserve data to show just how much tighter lending standards have become. Using the results of the Fed’s survey of loan officers, the report found that lending standards rose sharply after the mortgage market collapsed and the financial system imploded in 2008. Since the recession ended in 2009, lenders haven’t eased their tight grip on mortgage money.

Part of the reason is that there’s less money available to lend. During the housing boom, as brokers produced a flood of new mortgages, Wall Street bankers churned out a torrent of mortgage-backed bonds for investors waiting to snap them up. That market has all but vanished; 90 percent of new mortgages written today are backed by the government.

The new mortgage pipeline also has slowed because it is clogged with paperwork. These days, you’ll have to fill out many more forms and produce a lot more documentation, on average, just to get your loan considered.

The percent of loans that required “full documentation” declined steadily from 2000 through 2006, hitting a low of less than 60 percent. Those “no-doc” loans were a big part of the reason mortgage bankers made the bad underwriting decisions that created the mortgage mess. Today, nearly 90 percent of mortgage applications require full documentation. That’s much higher than the pre-bubble level.

You’ll also have to show a much higher credit score than you did in the go-go days of the housing boom. In a separate report, Mortgage Marvel, an online mortgage-shopping website, analyzed data from more than 700,000 mortgage applications filed last year and found that the average FICO score was 730. That’s a significant jump from the days when borrowers with scores in the high 500s were routinely steered to high-cost subprime loans.

Applications with highest credit scores concentrated in California, Oregon, Wisconsin, District of Columbia and Hawaii, the company said. The states with the lowest credit scores were Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Louisiana  and Oklahoma.

Obama administration expands foreclosure prevention program

By Les Christie @CNNMoney January 27, 2012

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — The Obama administration is taking another swing at improving its main foreclosure prevention program.

The administration said it was expanding eligibility for its Home Affordable Modification Program, known as HAMP, to borrowers with higher debt loads and tripling the incentives it pays banks that reduce principal on loans.

The administration also said it would offer incentives to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce principal on loans. Previously, the government had only offered incentives to private lenders and banks. The program was also extended to December 2013. It was initially set to expire at the end of this year.

The changes were announced in a joint press conference held by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Assistant Treasury Secretary Tim Massad, and White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling on Friday afternoon.

Originally designed to help some 4 million mortgage borrowers when it was first introduced in February, 2009, HAMP has helped fewer than 1 million homeowners.

With these changes, HAMP is turning into an “all of the above strategy to help responsible homeowners lower their costs and stay in their homes,” said Gene Sperling, the Director of the National Economic Council, who also took part in the press conference.

Here’s a rundown of the new changes:

  • Expansion of eligibility: HAMP was designed to bring the debt ratio of mortgage borrowers down to 31% of their incomes. Those whose mortgage payments were already below that level had been ineligible for a modification. They may qualify now. The new guidelines will allow for a more flexible approach that takes other debt into account when calculating debt-to-income ratios.
  • Extension of eligibility to owners of rentals properties: The old HAMP rules applied solely to owner-occupied homes but now those who own rental properties may also qualify for a HAMP modification.
  • Triple balance-reduction incentives: The new HAMP will pay between 18 cents and 63 cents for every dollar that lenders take off the mortgage principal, up from between 6 cents and 21 cents.
  • Pay Fannie and Freddie the same incentives: Currently, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do not offer principal reduction plans as part of their HAMP modifications. To encourage this assistance, Treasury said it will pay the same principal reduction incentives to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac if they allow servicers to forgive principal in conjunction with a HAMP modification.

While the new changes could greatly expand the number of homeowners that receive help from HAMP, it could invite controversy. Subsidizing real estate investors with taxpayer money in a time of rising rents doesn’t makes much sense to Anthony Sanders, a real estate professor at George Mason University, for example.

Yet, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said that it doesn’t matter whether the house next door to you is occupied by a tenant or an owner.

“If the house goes vacant, the value of your house goes down $5,000 or $10,000 that day,” he said. “These are major problems for homeowners.”

Following the press conference, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie and Freddie, issued a statement that said it would consider the changes to the HAMP program.

However, it noted that an analysis it recently conducted found “that principal forgiveness did not provide benefits that were greater than principal forbearance,” signaling that the housing authority may not support reducing the principal on loans as a way to help homeowners.

No new funds need be allocated for HAMP’s expansion. Since less than $10 billion of the $29 billion set aside for the program has been spent so far, said Timothy Massad, Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability at the Treasury Department. The administration would not hazard a guess at how many more borrowers the expanded program would help.

The changes in HAMP do not take effect until the end of April, but a Treasury spokeswoman said any struggling homeowners should reach out and seek foreclosure prevention counseling immediately. That way, they can learn their options, which could include trying to hold on until the new HAMP is ready.

FHA tightens rules, penalties for mortgage lenders


Friday, January 20th, 2012, 9:00 am

The Federal Housing Administration will toughen its standards for approving lenders that insure mortgages on its behalf and force more of them to buyback defaulted loans.

FHA Commissioner Carol Galante said the upcoming rule changes will help the agency protect its Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund, which, according to some, is in danger of needing a bailout. The fund slipped to a 0.24% capital ratio in the fiscal year 2011, down from 0.5% the year before.

The rule was initially proposed in October 2010 andfinalized Friday.

The rule changes apply to lenders authorized to insure mortgages for the FHA without first submitting documents to the agency. Roughly 80% of all FHA-insured mortgages are done this way.

The FHA will make it tougher to get approval for the coveted status. According to the new rule, a lender must hold a serious delinquency rate at or below 150% of the program’s average for the two years prior to its application. This rate will apply to all states in which the lender does business.

Also, the final rule forces lenders to indemnify – or reimburse FHA for an insurance claim – if the lender “knew or should have known” of any fraud or misrepresentation involved. Lenders would be on the hook for indemnification if the loan defaults within five years of origination.

Some commentary from the industry asked it to be shorted to a two or three year window, because problems that occur after then are due to job loss or divorce rather than decisions made at origination. FHA wouldn’t budge and said adopting the shorter timeframe “would be inconsistent with proper risk management practices.”

Others wanted clarification on whether or not the FHA would judge nationwide lenders with others operating within a smaller geographic area when determining approval or renewal of the status. They recommended larger lenders be held to a claim rate up to 150% of the national average, rather than just the states in does business in.

FHA didn’t amend the rule based on these comments either.

In a separate proposal, the FHA is changing the maximum allowable amount of seller concessions, or how much the seller contributes to the down payment or closing costs. The FHA said it will be reduced because the current level creates incentives to inflate the appraised value of the home.

Galante said the FHA will “continue to strike a balance” between managing its risk and continuing to provide support to a still struggling housing market.

“Taken together, the changes announced today will protect FHA’s insurance fund from unnecessary and inappropriate risks while offering clear guidance to lenders regarding HUD’s underwriting expectations,” Galante said.

Existing home sales rise 5% in December


Friday, January 20th, 2012, 9:32 am

Sales of existing homes rose for the third straight month, increasing 5% in December, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The trade group said the sale of single-family homes, townhomes, condos and co-ops increased to a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.61 million in December from a downwardly revised 4.39 million in November.

For all of 2011, existing-home sales rose 1.7% to 4.26 million from 4.19 million in 2010.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said these are early signs of what may be a sustained recovery.

“The pattern of home sales in recent months demonstrates a market in recovery,” he said. “Record low mortgage interest rates, job growth and bargain home prices are giving more consumers the confidence they need to enter the market.”

The national median existing-home price for all housing types fell 2.5% to $164,500 in December from the same month a year earlier. Distressed homes accounted for 32% of sales in December (19% were foreclosures and 13% were short sales), down from 36% in December 2010, but up from 29% in November.

Potential homeowners also have access to the lowest mortgage interest rates in 40 years. The national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage fell to another record low of 3.96% in December from 3.99% in November, according to Freddie Mac. The rate was 4.71% in December 2010.

Total housing inventory in December dropped 9.2% to 2.38 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 6.2-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 7.2-month supply in November. Available inventory trended down since setting a record of 4.04 million in July 2007 and is at the lowest level since March 2005 when 2.30 million homes sat on the market.

NAR President Moe Veissi said more buyers are expected to take advantage of market conditions this year.

“We have a large pent-up demand, and household formation is likely to return to normal as the job market steadily improves,” he said. “More buyers coming into the market mean additional benefits for the overall economy. When people buy homes, they stimulate a lot of related goods and services.”

Investors buying with cash pressure home prices


Monday, January 23rd, 2012, 7:51 am

Investors are gobbling up residential real estate with cash, pushing national home prices lower, according to the latestCampbell/Inside Mortgage Finance HousingPulse Tracking Survey.

The overall proportion of cash buyers in the housing market soared to a record 33.2%, compared to 29.6% a year earlier.

Meanwhile, the investor class relied heavily on cash to buy homes, with 74% of investors using cash to buy homes in December.

Investors represented 22.8% of home purchases in December alone, up slightly from 22.2% a month earlier.

The study says investor bids are bringing prices lower by waiting for other buyers to lose bids through the extensive mortgage approval process. The study says investors are nabbing properties at lower prices when other buyers lose bids during the extensive mortgage approval process or appraisals.

Real estate agents that responded to the survey said investors usually offer 10% to 20% below the listing price up to a price of $250,000.

Fannie Mae sees 2012 home sales up 3.5% to 4.74 million


Friday, January 13th, 2012

The housing sector will likely take incremental steps forward in 2012, though total originations will fall on fewer refinances, according to economists at Fannie Mae.

The second half of the year should outpace the first six months in terms of growth, though fiscal policy and political uncertainty in Washington will likely drive consumer and business activity, the mortgage giant said.

Chief Economist Doug Duncan said positive consumer activity and challenges in housing and the global economy will equate to moderate growth for the year.

“We’re entering 2012 with decent momentum, especially on the employment side, which is fostering positive household and consumer behavior,” Duncan said in a release. “Unfortunately, we expect this momentum to slow as we move through the first half of the year.”

The report released Friday forecast total home sales to increase 3.5% to about 4.74 million in 2012 from 2011 with another 5% gain in 2013 to nearly 5 million. New home sales could jump 10.4% for 2012.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency home sales price index, excluding refinances, could dip 1.1% for 2012 from a year before, according to the forecast. Economists predicted the 2011 index would finish 4.6% lower than 2010.

Mortgage originations as dollar volume could see a decline as well in 2012, largely on a steep drop in refinances. The Fannie report said total originations will fall to $1.01 trillion in 2012 from a predicted final 2011 tally of $1.36 trillion. Economists expected refinancing to plummet to $540 billion from $894 billion.

Purchase mortgages, however, will rise to $471 billion in 2012 from a estimated 2011 total of $464, according to the report.

Total single-family outstanding mortgage debt will likely drop 1.3% to $10.14 trillion in 2012.

For the U.S. economy as a whole, Fannie researchers predicted real GDP would increase 3.3% in the fourth quarter to finish the year at 1.7% growth. Economists forecast 2.3% GDP growth for 2012 and 2013.