Real Estate

Six Major Banks to Unveil Plan to Halt Foreclosures


Six of the largest U.S. mortgage lenders will announce on Tuesday a program to identify seriously delinquent borrowers and halt any foreclosure process while they try to work out a new payment scheme, sources familiar with the plan said.

The lenders will unite under the program, dubbed "Project Lifeline," to identify borrowers more than 60 days delinquent and stall any foreclosure proceedings while they try to develop new loan terms, the sources told Reuters.

David Zalubowski

Executives from Washington Mutual, Bank of America , Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase , Citigroup and Countrywide Financial are due to announce the plan on Tuesday morning with U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

A source familiar with the plan said the initiative dovetails with other foreclosure-prevention efforts already underway at many lenders, but said it will give more reassurance to troubled borrowers that they can avoid foreclosure even if they are seriously late with payments.

Earlier Monday, Countrywide announced an expanded program to help people with subprime mortgages stay in their homes.

The program created by the largest U.S. mortgage lender and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, comes as hundreds of thousands of borrowers nationwide face rising rates on their adjustable-rate mortgages.

It is intended to allow struggling borrowers refinance into less costly fixed-rate loans, or have their monthly payments frozen or lowered. Some economists believe the nation's housing
crisis may have helped push the economy into recession.

The number of U.S. homes that slipped into some stage of foreclosure in 2007 was 79 percent higher than in the previous year, a real estate tracking company said last week.

Many homeowners started to fall behind on mortgage payments in the last three months, setting the stage for more foreclosures this year.

"From a borrower's perspective, any program to help people stay in their homes is a good idea,"  Jaime Peters, an analyst at Morningstar, said of Countrywide's plan. "Borrowers who can demonstrate they can afford lower payments will be most helped."

Michael Gross, managing director of loan administration at Countrywide, did not say on a conference call what the program would cost or how many borrowers might be assisted, but said he expects the program to last "many years."

Countrywide's announcement was delayed more than three weeks, after Countrywide agreed on Jan. 11 to be acquired by Bank of America Corp, the second-largest U.S. bank.

Countrywide in 2007 made about one in six U.S. home loans. It essentially stopped making subprime mortgages, which go to people with poor credit, after critics said it fueled the
housing crisis by offering loans that people could not afford.

Bank of America has not made subprime mortgages since 2001.

In October, Calabasas, California-based Countrywide announced a separate partnership with the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, another advocacy group, to counsel borrowers. It has also said it helped more than 81,000 borrowers in 2007 stay in their homes and avert foreclosure.
Under the newest program, Countrywide and ACORN will offer subprime borrowers who have fallen behind on payments such options as rate freezes and reductions, and short-term
repayment plans.

Countrywide will also offer relief for borrowers with subprime "hybrid" ARMs, which carry low "teaser" rates that often jump after two or three years.

It said borrowers with strong payment records, but who have or may face difficulty as rates reset, may be able to refinance into prime loans, or get a five-year rate freeze.

"No subprime borrower who has the ability and willingness to make payments should face foreclosure," Maude Hurd, ACORN's president, said on a conference call.

Last month, Countrywide said more than one in three subprime home loans in its $1.48 trillion servicing portfolio were delinquent. Loans in foreclosure doubled from a year earlier to 1.44 percent, and overall delinquencies rose to 7.20 percent of unpaid balances from 4.60 percent.

Bank of America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, agreed to buy Countrywide in an all-stock transaction now valued at about $4.4 billion. A third-quarter closing is expected.

Separately, Bank of America will join the 30-member Dow Jones industrial average on Feb. 19, as part of the first changes in the 30-member index since April 2004.