A supply of 1.7 million homes headed for sale because of foreclosure or delinquency looms over the nation's housing market, which could dampen progress toward recovery should the Obama administration fail in its efforts to aid struggling homeowners, researchers said.
A variety of measures to keep discounted bank-owned properties off the market -- including moratoriums on foreclosures by major lenders and federal initiatives aimed at keeping people in their homes with mortgage payments they can afford -- has helped increase a backlog of so-called shadow inventory 55% in the year ended Sept. 30, according to a report released Thursday by First American CoreLogic, a Santa Ana-based real estate research firm.
Shadow inventory properties are homes that have not been tallied into official inventory numbers tracked by Realtors and other real estate professionals. They include homes taken back by lenders through foreclosures and similar actions, as well as homes whose owners are at least 90 days delinquent on their mortgage payments.
A year earlier, the pending supply of homes not yet up for sale totaled 1.1 million.
A debate has emerged among real estate professionals and economists over how big an effect shadow properties will have on housing prices and sales if lenders unload them onto the market next year.
Some argue that lenders, concerned about potential losses, will moderate the pace of repossessions to avoid depressing the market. Others say efforts by the government won't be able to keep up with the sheer number of defaults brought on by unemployment and depressed home values.
"One of the key questions is the timing, and a lot of the timing issues are really related to the administration's HAMP program," or Home Affordable Modification Program, said Sam Khater, a senior economist for First American. "If many of the loans that are delinquent are able to be successfully modified, and those loans perform, then that should alleviate this issue of the pending supply and shadow inventory."
Such success is proving elusive. Data released last week by the federal government showed that though the number of temporary mortgage modifications grew, very few had turned into permanent ones. Only 31,382 of the more than 700,000 mortgage modifications under the federal program -- less than 5% -- had been made permanent by the end of November. Late last month the Obama administration unveiled new measures, including the threat of fines, to push mortgage servicers to improve.
"Our forecast is that [home] prices will drop," Khater said. "We are basically expecting that the program will continue to proceed as it has in the recent past. There might be a slight improvement, but it is a drop in the bucket relative to the size of the pipeline of default that is coming up."
In California, home prices and sales have shown steady improvement in part because foreclosure properties have made up a smaller fraction of the housing for sale in recent months. A report released Thursday by research firm MDA DataQuick showed that the state's median home price in November was up 1.6% over the prior month, at $261,000. Of the previously owned homes sold statewide last month, 40.6% had been foreclosed on during the last year -- the lowest proportion since May 2008, when it was 39.8%, and considerably down from its February peak of 58.8%, DataQuick said.
"One of the big reasons that we have had stability in prices is that there is very little supply these days," said Gerd-Ulf Krueger, principal economist at HousingEcon.com. "The foreclosure supply really has shrunk, and it will be interesting to see what happens when that comes back on the market sometime next year. . . . It looks like the banks, under the urging of the Obama administration, are going to do the smart thing and mete it out in a more fashionable way, a more careful way."
First American estimated that the inventory not yet on the market constituted a 3.3-month supply at the end of the third quarter, up from 2.4 months a year earlier. The number of homes for sale was 3.8 million, a 7.8-month supply at the current sales pace, First American said. That's down from 4.7 million, or a 10.1-month supply, a year earlier.
Stuart Gabriel, director of UCLA's Ziman Center for Real Estate, laid out a troubling scenario that could play out if shadow properties do hit the market early next year: a contagion effect in which waves of foreclosures beget more, taking down the values of entire neighborhoods. Concern over such an outcome could cause sellers and lenders to act more cautiously, slowing the pace at which they take back troubled properties, he said.
"Some are strategically holding property off the market and are only putting it back on in dribs and drabs," he said. "They're playing this interesting game where, on one hand, they need to liquidate these properties, but they can't create a downward implosion in prices that will come back and bite them even harder."
Some lenders have declared limited foreclosure moratoriums this year to give troubled borrowers time to catch up on their payments or work out other solutions. Those announcements continued Thursday: Mortgage titans Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said they would suspend foreclosure evictions from Saturday to Jan. 3, and Citigroup Inc. said it would suspend some foreclosures and evictions from today to Jan. 17.
And some experts aren't worried about the possibility of a foreclosure wave next year.
John Husing, an economist who studies the Inland Empire, recently wrote a report arguing that home prices in that hard-hit area had bottomed at the end of the second quarter and were likely to keep recovering because homes had reached record levels of affordability.
At the end of the second quarter, for instance, 73% of all families in San Bernardino County and 68% in Riverside County could afford the cheaper 50% of homes in their counties, Husing wrote, citing data from the California Assn. of Realtors. In 2005, 19% in San Bernardino County and 14% in Riverside County could afford to buy such homes.
"It's not the supply side of the market that we should be focusing on anymore," Husing said. "Demand has taken off because affordability, at least in the inland region, is at record levels."