Realtors Roll the Dice With HAFA

This post first appeared on Minyanville.

The Obama Administration’s latest salvo in the war against foreclosures, Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives, or HAFA, is but a week old and already America’s real estate establishment is trying to cash in.

HAFA aims to step in where Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, fails. In other words, when borrowers are so far behind or upside down that a modification doesn’t make sense, HAFA tries to provide an alternative. Whether it be through Short Sale, where lenders let borrowers sell their homes for less than the amount of the outstanding mortgage, or “deeds-in-lieu,” where homeowners hand their lenders the keys in exchange for absolution of the debt, Washington wants to make getting out from under crippling mortgage debt a little bit easier.

Realtors are licking their chops.

Short sales are notoriously tough to get done, since voluminous requests have bogged down the back offices of big banks like JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Wells Fargo (WFC), and Bank of America (BAC). Approving short sales can take months, and real estate agents lose commissions when buyers walk for lack of patience or if they find another deal. As a result, short sales sell at as much as a 10%-15% discount to regular sales or even bank-owned homes, simply because most buyers (and agents) don’t want to deal with the headache.

HAFA wants to fix all that. By providing cash incentives for interested parties (lenders, loan servicers, and borrowers) to push through short sales, Washington has devised yet another way to try and help distressed homeowners. But as I wrote last week in The Unintended Consequences of Treasury’s HAFA Program, these payments may be too small to push a material number of short sales through the system.

When a buyer makes an offer on a short sale, it first must be approved by the homeowner, then sent on for approval by the bank. More often than not, sellers place the asking price as high as possible in hopes that an offer will be good enough to get the bank’s attention. And more often than not, overpriced short sales get stale as buyers move on in favor of better, lower-priced homes.

But in the few days since the Treasury Department announced HAFA, a strange thing has started happening. Short sale prices are being slashed and buyers are stepping in. The logic makes sense: If you were an underwater borrower (or his or her Realtor), why not slash your asking price to well below the amount you owe, grab an offer, and send it through. You never know what you may get. After all, the president effectively announced that he’d be asking lenders to take it in the shorts for the common good. So banks, eager to keep their names out of the papers as uncooperative, may be eager to fill their government-mandated quota for HAFA short sales and approve just about anything that comes in the door.

And, of course, Realtors then get to collect their commission. A commission which HAFA mandates must be higher than the going rate for distressed sales.

Tags: , , , , ,