Increased scrutiny of how lenders foreclose on Americans has dragged the repossession process out to unprecedented lengths, driving down the pace at which banks are taking back homes.
Big banks are taking longer not only to push borrowers into foreclosure, but also to move homeowners through each stage of the process than in previous years, according to a report by Irvine-based RealtyTrac.
The extended timelines have meant a reprieve for troubled borrowers. But economists said the delays could hold back a national housing rebound if foreclosures remain a significant part of the market for years to come.
In April, U.S. foreclosure activity fell for the seventh month in a row on a year-over-year basis to the lowest point in more than three years, RealtyTrac said. The sharp April drop was the result of the foreclosure-processing slowdown and not an indication of a housing rebound lifting people out of default, experts said.
“The banks have had to slow down and get more lawyers involved because of all of the fuss over the robo-signing scandal,” said Christopher Thornberg, principal of Beacon Economics, referring to the revelations last year that banks foreclosed on properties using faulty paperwork.
Foreclosure filings— notices of default, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions — dropped 9% in April from March and plunged 34% from April 2010 as 219,258 U.S. properties received new filings in April. The number of bank repossessions fell 5% from the prior month and 25% from April 2010, with lenders taking back 69,532 U.S. properties. In all, 239,795 foreclosure filings were made, with some properties receiving multiple filings.
In California, 55,899 properties received new foreclosure filings, down 7% from the previous month and off 20% from a year earlier. But a 22% jump in home seizures compared with March contributed to keeping the state’s foreclosure rate the third highest in the nation, with 13,741 homes seized. That was still down 19% from April 2010.
One in every 240 California homes received a foreclosure filing in April, RealtyTrac said.
Houston Smith, a Hermosa Beach real estate agent who markets foreclosures for big banks, said that as a result of the paperwork fiasco, he has seen the pace of bank-owned properties released into the market slow significantly.
"[Lenders] are under increased pressure and encouragement to make every effort to do a loan modification, or a short sale, and that has been a dramatic change,” Smith said. “It does not mean that there are fewer properties in trouble.”
New laws have helped drag out the process in many states. Consumer advocates and attorneys also are increasingly challenging bank actions in courts and are ramping up their lobbying efforts to push for more mortgage workouts for borrowers in trouble.
“In the end it is really a sideshow,” said Alys Cohen, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. “The paperwork needs to be proper, but the real question is whether homeowners will get loan modifications when they qualify for them.”
Nationally, foreclosures completed in the first quarter of 2011 took an average of 400 days from start to finish, according to RealtyTrac, an increase from 340 days during the same period in 2010 and more than double the average of 151 days it took to foreclose during the same period in 2007.
The process has even slowed in California, where foreclosures remain largely outside of the court system. In California, the average foreclosure took 330 days in the first quarter, up from 262 days during the same period last year and more than double the average of 134 days during the period in 2007.
In states where a court order is needed to repossess a home, foreclosures are taking even longer.
The average timeframe from start to finish in New Jersey and New York was more than 900 days in the first quarter, more than three times the average in the first quarter of 2007 for both states, according to RealtyTrac.
In Florida, the average foreclosure took 619 days in the first quarter, up from 470 a year earlier and nearly four times the average of 169 during the same period in 2007.
Federal regulators last month ordered the nation’s biggest banks to overhaul their procedures and compensate borrowers injured financially by wrongdoing or negligence. A wider-ranging investigation conducted by a coalition of state attorneys general and other federal agencies is ongoing.
Several states have sought to put their own limitations on how quickly banks can take back homes. Homeowners also appear to be increasingly challenging foreclosures, particularly in states where a court order is required.
States with a judicial foreclosure process registered a 3% decrease in overall foreclosure activity from March, but a 47% plunge from April 2010. States with a non-judicial foreclosure process posted an 11% month-over-month decrease and a 26% year-over-year decrease.
Some economists are concerned that a slower foreclosure process will mean that the housing recovery will take longer to get going. Foreclosures tend to sell at a discount, and, when making up the bulk of sales in a market, give the perception that prices are falling. In addition, residential builders are struggling to compete with foreclosed homes. Home building has typically been an important boost to an economy exiting recession.
“Clearing this stuff out and getting this stuff over with is just essential, and so in the long run the faster these things can be resolved now, the better,” said Richard Green, director of USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate. “That is the only point at which the market can resume normalcy.”
But Kurt Eggert, a professor at Chapman University School of Law, said that much of the slowdown in California and other states has been intentional by banks that do not want to see another steep drop in prices. Fewer foreclosures and more mortgage modifications would be a good thing, he said.
“If servicers foreclosed as quickly as they could, and they dumped all the properties on the market, you could get a downward spiral,” Eggert said. “As that happens, more and more borrowers go underwater and you could have a vicious cycle — just like the housing boom was fed by the perception that prices always go up, you could have a housing slump that is fed by the perception that prices always go down.”