California mortgage defaults drop 24.3%

The Obama administration’s $75-billion program to help troubled borrowers hold on to their homes appears to be keeping more California families out of foreclosure, data released Wednesday showed, but the relief may be temporary.

The number of homes entering the first stage of foreclosure declined 24.3% during the fourth quarter from the previous three months, according to MDA DataQuick, a San Diego real estate research firm. The decline in the default number is significant because any new wave of foreclosures, which could swamp the housing market’s recovery, would be preceded by a surge in defaults.

So far, thousands of California borrowers have had their mortgages modified through Obama’s Making Home Affordable program, but only 7.8% of those modifications were permanent through Dec. 31, according to government data. If the majority of borrowers who have received temporary loan modifications are unable to make those changes permanent, another surge of foreclosures could follow.

“Given what we see in terms of the number of distressed properties that are in the pipeline, we do expect that foreclosures will mount as borrowers are not able to make it from a trial modification to a permanent modification,” Celia Chen, senior director of Moody’s, said. “This will cause home prices to start falling again.”


The foreclosure explosion began early in 2007 as home values began falling and adjustable-rate mortgages began resetting, putting payments out of reach for many homeowners. Rising unemployment has added to the problem.

Of particular concern is the number of people who are underwater, or owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. That number soared with the precipitous drop in home prices. At the end of September, about 1 in 4 U.S. mortgage holders was underwater, and more than a third of California mortgage holders were in that position, according to First American CoreLogic, a real estate data firm.

“If a borrower is deeply underwater, he doesn’t want to be in the home,” said Laurie Goodman, senior managing director of Amherst Securities. A loan modification would give the borrower more time, she said, “but there is no reason to stay in your home, and you save a lot by just walking away.”

Consumer groups are calling for more aggressive measures to help struggling borrowers stay in their homes, such as cutting the amount borrowers owe on their mortgages.

“We believe strongly that principal reduction should be a component of an effective loan modification program, because principal reduction is going to be more effective keeping people in their homes,” said Paul Leonard, California director of the Center for Responsible Lending.

Principal reductions are a part of the Obama administration’s program, but most loan modifications have involved interest rate reductions and term extensions. The Obama administration has resisted calls to increase the number of principal reductions because such a move could encourage some borrowers to fall behind on their mortgages intentionally and increase the cost to taxpayers, Meg Reilly, a Treasury Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

“There are concerns about moral hazard,” she said.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is considering how best to implement a principal reduction option into its loss share agreements with banks that have purchased mortgages of failed banks seized by the federal agency, according to spokesman David Barr. Under the proposals, principal reduction would be an option and the agency would share losses with the banks.


“We are analyzing the overall program,” Barr wrote in an e-mail.

A key problem is that many mortgages were sold by the lenders that originated them and packaged into complex securities. Most lenders still act as servicers, collecting and dispersing payments on the loans to far-flung investors and may not control the terms of the contracts, complicating negotiations over modifications.

One major California bank, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, has been actively reducing the principal balances of a batch of Wachovia loans that the bank inherited when it acquired Wachovia in 2008. The bank reduced about $2.6 billion worth of principal during 2009. Franklin Codel, chief financial officer of the bank’s home-lending unit, said in an interview this week that the fact that the bank owns those loans made the changes easier.

“To us it is an important part of creating an affordable, sustainable modification for the borrowers,” Codel said.


Alejandro Estrella, a 47-year-old postal carrier in Riverside, received a principal reduction of about $50,000 from Wells last fall on the two-bedroom house he bought in 2005. It is motivating him to stay in his home, he said.

“I am happy with what I have gotten,” he said. “Now, whatever it takes, I make the payment.”

Throughout California, 84,568 notices of default were filed at county recorders’ offices in the fourth quarter, an increase of 12.4% from the same period of 2008, DataQuick said. Trustee deeds recorded, signifying the actual loss of a home to foreclosure, totaled 51,060 from October through December, up 2.1% from the third quarter and 10.6% from the fourth quarter of 2008.

For the full year, 190,360 California homes were lost to foreclosure, down 19.42% from 2008, when foreclosures topped 236,000. That was the most since DataQuick began tracking foreclosures in 1988.


“Clearly, many lenders and servicers have concluded that the traditional foreclosure process isn’t necessarily the best way to process market distress,” DataQuick President John Walsh said. He said banks have been negotiating with distressed borrowers to keep them in their homes and increasingly turning to “short sales” in which the banks accept an offer that is less than the value of the outstanding mortgage; banks end up taking a loss on such deals.

The worst may be over for California’s hard-hit entry-level market, DataQuick said. The most affordable 25% of the state’s housing stock accounted for about 35% of all foreclosure activity in the fourth quarter, down from 52% a year earlier.

Mortgages were more likely to go into default in inland areas such as Merced, Stanislaus and Riverside counties, which were ravaged by foreclosures during the downturn. The coastal counties of San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo had the least probability of default, DataQuick said.