Stalled foreclosures could swamp local home-buying market

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Oct. 25, 2010 – As big lenders’ recent freeze on foreclosures begins to thaw, local real-estate agents worry that those bargain properties will now flood the market and further sink housing prices.

Just a few weeks after Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and other big banks announced a temporary halt to foreclosures because of concerns about improperly signed documents, they are preparing to restart the process. The question is: How many of those stalled foreclosures will lenders put on the market at the same time?

“That’s the big question – will they come back in a big thud or will they trickle in?” said Winter Park real-estate broker David Welch of Re/Max 200. “Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who knows what the answer is. I think if they come flooding back it obviously won’t be a good thing in the market.”

Since the moratoriums were announced at the beginning of the month, 53 percent of the scheduled foreclosure sales in Orange County have been canceled – creating a backlog of as many as 850 properties that lenders pulled from the process just prior to their hitting the market. In the three weeks preceding the freeze, only 38 percent of the county’s auctions had been canceled, primarily because of judicial requirements for mediation and for face-to-face conversations between lenders and borrowers.

In Orange County Courthouse Room 350, crammed with investors attending the daily foreclosure auctions, longtime buyer Jack Coughlin said last week that he sees banks sitting on a growing inventory of foreclosed houses just waiting to hit the market.

“Are they going to release them all? If they do, there is going to be a 20 percent drop in values,” Coughlin said. “People ask, ‘Where are these properties?’ They are sitting in banks’ vaults.”

Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase, said last week his company is still reviewing cases and had not announced any kind of timetable for releasing foreclosed properties to the market.

Orlando ranks 10th in the nation for foreclosure filings, according to a September report by the real estate research company RealtyTrac Inc. The crash that followed the peak-market conditions of three or four years ago has dragged down Orlando’s median resale price from $264,000 in July 2007 to $105,000 last month. Bargain-basement prices already dominate the market: More than 70 percent of the area’s existing-home sales currently involve bank-owned or short-sale properties that sell for less than market value, according to the Orlando Regional Realtor Association.

Lenders’ decision to halt foreclosures in early October did two things to Orlando’s real-estate market: drove up prices and drove down sales. The absence of those bargain properties from the market has caused the median price to spike about $10,000 in recent weeks, to about $115,000, said Welch, who continually tracks the market. And the inventory of active listings has dropped by about 3 percent, he added.

State attorneys general had stepped up pressure on lenders after it was revealed that bank employees had signed foreclosure affidavits without verifying that the documents were accurate – a process known as “robo-signing.” But after reviewing more than 100,000 documents in Florida and 22 other states, Bank of America announced last week that it was restarting the foreclosure process. GMAC Mortgage also said it was resuming work on its foreclosures.

The banks had never stopped litigating the cases; they had just canceled the foreclosure sales to give themselves time to investigate the suspect paperwork and signatures, said Orlando lawyer Matt Englett, whose firm handles tens of thousands of foreclosures. He said robo-signing can become apparent if the names of certain bank employees continually show up on certain documents.

People will still lose their homes, Englett said, but they may be able to walk away without a deficiency judgment against them – without owing any additional money, in other words – if it turns out their paperwork includes suspect signatures. Owners may also be in a better position to get their mortgage terms modified if their foreclosure paperwork has been tarnished in some way.

So far, local real-estate agents haven’t seen any signs of once-stalled foreclosures hitting the market.

“I had more than a third of my listings pulled,” Maitland real-estate agent Lee Acker said. “We had a buyer ready to close on one. It’s just frustrating. These were properties ready to go to owner-occupants.”

In the short term, Acker said, the moratoriums “created an artificial demand for the property that’s left. What I’m afraid of is when they go back on the market.”

Copyright © 2010, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla., Mary Shanklin. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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