A shadow lurks in the housing market

This is scary. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that lenders are sitting on hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes that haven't even been listed yet. If this "shadow inventory" hits the market, we'll have a new definition of bottomless pit.

From the article:

"We believe there are in the neighborhood of 600,000 properties nationwide that banks have repossessed but not put on the market," said Rick Sharga, vice president of RealtyTrac, which compiles nationwide statistics on foreclosures. "California probably represents 80,000 of those homes. It could be disastrous if the banks suddenly flooded the market with those distressed properties. You'd have further depreciation and carnage."

The Chronicle suggests several reasons why banks might not be selling off their foreclosures:

-- The "pig in the python": Digesting all those foreclosures takes awhile. It's time-consuming to get a home vacant, clean and ready for sale. "The system is overwhelmed by the volume," Sharga said. "In a normal market, there are 160,000 (foreclosures for sale nationwide) over the course of a year. Right now, there are about 80,000 every month."

-- Accounting sleight-of-hand: Lenders could be deferring sales to put off having to acknowledge the actual extent of their loss. "With banks in the stress they're in, I don't think they're anxious to show losses in assets on their balance sheets," O'Toole said.

-- Slowing the free-fall: Banks might be strategically holding back some foreclosures so prices don't fall as fast. "They want to be careful about not releasing them too quickly so they don't drive prices down and hurt the values," O'Toole said.

And then, there are people scamming the system. Two dozen people have been indicted for "allegedly conducting a wide-ranging mortgage fraud based in San Diego and led by a street gang member." From Reuters:

The defendants allegedly used straw buyers and inflated appraisals to purchase homes that had sat on the market for extended periods and had been reduced in price.

They submitted offers that exceeded the homes' asking prices, and had the overage paid to a shell construction company that they claimed would make upgrades or handicap modifications to the properties, prosecutors said.

The defendants instead disbursed the "kickback amount" to members and associates of the enterprise as payments for their participation, the indictment said.

Lenders later foreclosed on the properties, taking "severe financial losses," after the straw buyers failed to make payments, the indictment said.

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