Short Sales Surge, But No Thanks to Government Program

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Any time I see a 74 percent jump in anything, I hear alarm bells, so when the Treasury Department reported just that big a jump in its Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA) program, I figured there had to be something really big behind it.

And I was wrong.

There's nothing big behind it, in fact there's something very small behind it: Small numbers.

HAFA provides financial incentives for servicers and borrowers to do short sales (selling the property for less than the value of the mortgage) and deeds in lieu of foreclosure (basically just giving the property back to the bank). The program launched in April of 2010 and was later streamlined in December, 2010, based on feedback from mortgage servicers, real estate agents and homeowners.

So far, HAFA has completed 7,113 short sales or DIL's. In April, however, HAFA saw 1,666 completed, up 74 percent from the 959 done in March.

Why the jump?

"It's too early to draw broad conclusions," says Treasury spokesman Andrea Risotto, noting that Treasury just began reporting the numbers two months ago. She also points to a long reporting lag because the short sale process still takes so long. But none of this is the story. The 74 percent jump exists because the numbers are just so small, and that's the story. HAFA is doing a relatively miniscule number of short sales, when you compare the program to what the big banks are doing on their own.

JP Morgan Chase has done over 110,000 short sales since 2009, now processing about 5000 a month, according to recent reports to Congress, and they are the number three servicer behind Bank of America and Wells Fargo. If you extrapolate that out, the top three banks are probably doing more than 20,000 a month, and they're ramping up the sales as we speak.

"Short sales shot up in the Spring as banks wrestled with foreclosure problems and delays," says Guy Cecala of Inside Mortgage Finance. In fact, the Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance HousingPulse Tracking Survey reported short sales hit a record high of 19.6 percent of all home purchase transactions in March. "Banks have discovered that short sales are often the fastest and most cost effective way to resolve a severely delinquent mortgage, and they have greatly improved their processing systems (any turnaround times) for handling these transactions."

Compared to a foreclosure, other sources say, short sales result in smaller losses. There is more financial certainty than from an REO (bank owned) sale many months down the road when the property has likely deteriorated. The banks are currently looking at so many potential REO's from so many delinquent loans in the pipeline, they'd be ridiculous not to try to short sell as many as they possibly could.

Some servicers are aggressively seeking out borrowers for short sales.

"Chase reaches out to borrowers who have already listed their homes or were recently denied a modification to initiate the short sale evaluation process. The goal is to have as much paperwork completed as possible prior to receiving the offer, thereby reducing the time from offer receipt to approval," a Chase spokesman explains.

But why, if HAFA actually pays borrowers and servicers to do short sales and DIL's, would banks be doing so many outside of the program?

"HAFA is a taxpayer funded program, so it has eligibility requirements targeted at a certain segment of the population," says Risotto, noting that the program is for owner occupants who can demonstrate financial hardship and whose first mortgage is less than $729,750. "HAFA is not meant to be for every person looking to do a short sale," she adds.

That knocks out investors, jumbo loans and borrowers who don't meet the "hardship" requirements of the Treasury. The big banks are likely more lenient on that last one, again knowing that a short sales will be cheaper in the end than a foreclosure.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @Diana_Olick