There was a time, not so long ago, when a high percentage of the residential closings that we were doing were short sales. Short sales really ramped up following the bursting of the housing bubble and then peaked during the foreclosure crisis.  We all know how we got there and we remember the no doc, no review teaser loans.  Short sales were a fact of life.  We represented both buyers and sellers in short sales.  In both cases, we were at the mercy of the lenders in addressing the ridiculous number of requirements for approvals and then waiting for months on end for the approvals to come back.

Fortunately, those days are behind us. Short sales are rare, but not completely gone.  So, if you are selling you’re house, how do you know if a short sale is right for you and what will a short sale mean for you?  I haven’t thought much about these questions for a while, but like most of my blog posts, I am inspired to write about this now because recently, a new client inquired about short sales.  The client was transferred from South Florida to Atlanta, leaving behind a house with an outstanding mortgage balance (combined 1st and second) of over $800,000.  The house is not yet listed for sale, though the client has already relocated.  The agent expects that the house will sell for under $700,000.  The client wanted to know what to do and what will happen.  His first question was whether we should apply for short sale approval with the lenders now.

The answer is no. Obviously, if the agent is correct, there will be a short sale.  However, until a contract is signed, there is no approval to obtain from the lenders because we don’t know the amount of the deficiency.  And, because there are 2 lenders, the contract might be enough to satisfy the 1st mortgage leaving the 2nd unpaid.  If the 1st insists upon full payment, the dynamics of the negotiations would change completely.

In addition, in order to approve a short sale, lenders require an appraisal of the property. The appraisal must be by an approved appraiser and can’t be too old.  So, we couldn’t submit an appraisal yet.  The appraisal might be stale by the time a contract is signed.

Another factor is the client’s ability to pay the deficiency. If the client is liquid or has net worth or otherwise has income, lenders are less willing to write off the deficiency.  Where 2 lenders are involved, the client has a bigger hurdle, especially if the 1st mortgagee takes all of the sales proceeds.  Attempting to obtain pre-contract approval would bring attention to these issues far too early in the process.

At this point, I suggested to the client that it would be a bad idea to have any conversation with either lender until there was a contract in place. Once a contract has been signed, it should be submitted to each lender for approval and a case made for the short sale.  Here, the arguments have to be made that the client is unable to pay the deficiency.  I explained that lenders are supposed to make this decision on a primarily objective basis, but we can give subjective reasons for an economic hardship.  But, since we are not in the crisis mode any more, it is now difficult to predict how lenders will lenders will react and that the client needs to be prepared to address the deficiency.

Short sales can’t be counted on as escape routes for home owners or as a simple alternative to the foreclosure process any more. Lenders are less willing to write off deficiencies without a compelling economic hardship.  Because there isn’t a back log of short sales to approve, lenders will carefully review every request for short sale.  If you have other options, you should consider them as well.

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        A recent Redfin survey found that 60% of home sellers over the last year received a discount on fees received from their real estate agent. The average discount was 41%. In the same survey, 46% of home buyers reported receiving a closing cost refund or closing cost contribution from their agent. The average refund or contribution was $3,673.

             Redfin reports that these results are not surprising and in fact, are part of a 10-year trend. However, in their Blog about the survey, Redfin attributes its own services as some of the primary reasons for these trends. Of course, this makes the survey a self-serving promotional vehicle. But, I don’t think that the results are wrong. There are valid reasons for agents to contribute to their clients. These reasons are not just financially driven for the agent. They are also ego driven for the sellers and buyers. Let me explain.

            Buyers and sellers of residential properties almost always have unrealistic expectations. Nearly every seller thinks that their house is worth much more than market value, that they know more than the best of appraisers and their own agents, that the upgrades they have put into their homes make their house unique and that their house is the best and most valuable in the entire neighborhood. Sellers have an expectation when they list their homes as to a minimum sales price and a corresponding net cash in pocket at closing. Contrast that with the typical buyer. A typical buyer has a magic number in his or her head – a price ceiling. A buyer does not think about or understand how a few thousand dollars of purchase price amortizes to only a few dollars per month on a mortgage payment. If the maximum price is exceeded, the buyer would rather walk away from a potentially perfect property.

             Then there is the problem of inspections and repairs. Egos get in the way here too. Buyers and sellers argue over costs of repairs and who is responsible for them. I am not talking about major repairs like the need for a new roof. Those need to be dealt with. I am talking about the small ones like the broken door knobs, torn screens and faulty light switches. These are things that every homeowner has to repair at some point. There is little to no cost, yet sellers refuse to fix or pay for them and buyers won’t close without a credit or without the repair. How many times have closings been delayed over less than $1,000 worth of repairs? On million dollar homes?

             What about the high cost of financing? While interest rates remain low, the cost of credit is not. Points and fees are costly. And, the costs of the closing itself are also not cheap. When all of these factors are taken together, agents look to bring their clients closer to their initial expectations – what did they think they were going to pay or receive when they got into this deal? Listing agents reduce commission to get a little more cash to seller and procuring agents reimburse some closing costs to buyers to reduce out of pocket costs and the necessary cash to close. This is an ego stroking move by agents. A half a point in commission, or a couple thousand dollars goes a long way to making a client feel better and might get a referral or two for the agent down the road.

            Finally, add to the mix the competition the agents must feel. Inventory is low. There are fewer deals to close and that means there is less commission income for agents. Good agents do what is necessary to close, including leaving a little money on the table. This is not a science. We don’t have to do broad market research to figure out the reasons. It’s about ego and it’s about the next deal. It’s what the market demands.

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