Experts say it is in everyone’s interest to settle these loans, but doing so is not always easy. Consider Randy and Dawn McLain of Phoenix. The couple decided to sell their home after falling behind on their first mortgage from Chase and a home equity line of credit from CitiFinancial last year, after Randy McLain retired because of a back injury. The couple owed $370,000 in total.
After three months, the couple found a buyer willing to pay about $300,000 for their home — a figure representing an 18 percent decline in the value of their home since January 2007, when they took out their home equity credit line. (Single-family home prices in Phoenix have fallen about 18 percent since the summer of 2006, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller index.)
CitiFinancial, which was owed $95,500, rejected the offer because it would have paid off the first mortgage in full but would have left it with a mere $1,000, after fees and closing costs, on the credit line. The real estate agents who worked on the sale say that deal is still better than the one the lender would get if the home was foreclosed on and sold at an auction in a few months.
“If it goes into foreclosure, which it is very likely to do anyway, you wouldn’t get anything,” said J. D. Dougherty, a real estate agent who represented the buyer on the transaction.
Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for CitiFinancial, declined to comment on the McLains’ situation, citing privacy considerations.
“We strive to find solutions that are acceptable to the various parties involved,” he said but two lenders can “value the property differently.”
Other lenders like National City, the bank based in Cleveland, have blocked homeowners from refinancing first mortgages unless the borrowers pay off the second lien held by the bank first. But such tactics carry significant risk, said Michael Youngblood, a portfolio manager and analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, the securities firm. “It might also impel the borrower to file for bankruptcy,” and a judge could write down the value of the second mortgage, he said.
A spokeswoman for National City, Kristen Baird Adams, said the policy applied only to home equity loans originated by mortgage brokers.
Underscoring the difficulties likely to arise from home equity loans, a Democratic proposal in Congress to refinance troubled mortgages and provide them with government backing specifically excludes second liens. Lenders holding a second lien would be required to write off their debts before the first loan could be refinanced. That could leave out a significant number of loans, analysts say.
People with weak, or subprime, credit could be hurt the most. More than a third of all subprime loans made in 2006 had associated second-lien debt, up from 17 percent in 2000, according to Credit Suisse. And many people added second loans after taking out first mortgages, so it is impossible to say for certain how many homeowners have multiple liens on their properties.
“This is turning out to be a real impediment to solving this problem,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com, “at least, solving it quickly.”