California to join multistate inquiry of foreclosures by banks

It’s great to see that real estate practices are being scrutinized.

Via LA Times
By E. Scott Reckard and Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
October 13, 2010
Reporting from Orange County and Washington —

California will join a multistate investigation into whether banks violated laws by cutting corners while foreclosing on homes as the Obama administration made clear Tuesday that it would not support a nationwide moratorium.

The moves came as one of the nation’s major lenders, Ally Financial Inc., said it would expand the review of its foreclosure practices nationally to include states such as California where courts do not hold jurisdiction over the process. The company stopped short of saying it would suspend foreclosure sales in all 50 states, as Bank of America Corp. did last week, while it conducted this review.

In addition, Wells Fargo & Co. said that it had begun reviewing its pending foreclosures in the 23 states where courts preside over the seizure of homes. Wells Fargo spokesman Jason Menke said the bank was not instituting a moratorium on foreclosure sales and evictions, as other big lenders have done.

As the scope of the problem has increased, state officials around the country have begun inquiries. A multistate task force is expected to be publicly unveiled Wednesday. It will be headed by Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller, who has taken the lead role in previous mortgage-related inquiries conducted by coalitions of state officials.

Officials from 38 states took part in a recent conference call on the investigation, although it’s not clear how many will sign on. But the Golden State is in: “California has decided to join the other attorneys general in the multistate group,” said Jim Finefrock, a spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, in an e-mail Tuesday to The Times.

Several large banks, including home-lending giants Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co., have acknowledged paperwork errors, such as legal affidavits signed by employees who failed to read the documents. But they contend the errors were procedural and that the underlying facts in these cases justified foreclosures.

A Bank of America spokesman said that the typical foreclosure by the bank involves a borrower who hasn’t made a mortgage payment in 18 months. A third of the Charlotte, N.C., bank’s foreclosures are of homes that the borrowers have abandoned, spokesman Dan Frahm said.

Many lawmakers have called for investigations and moratoriums on foreclosures. But the White House on Tuesday rejected calls for a nationwide halt.

“We support the stance that the attorneys general and federal regulators are taking to get to the bottom of and to fix the process in the mortgage industry,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “There are a series of unintended consequences to a broader moratorium.”

Such a national moratorium “would impact the recovery in the housing sector” because pending sales of foreclosed homes would be stopped, Gibbs said.

Ally (formerly known as GMAC) was the first big mortgage servicer to begin the suspension of evictions and foreclosure sales in the 23 so-called judicial foreclosure states after it found that its employees signed thousands of legal affidavits assuring judges of facts regarding defaulted loans — without reading the documents.

The bank, and representatives of the mortgage banking industry, have described the problems as procedural, saying the foreclosures were justified even if the paperwork was botched.

Jim Olecki, a spokesman for Ally, said Tuesday that the company was hiring several legal and accounting firms to conduct independent reviews of its process nationally out of “an abundance of caution.”

“We took this step to just make sure that everything is aligned in all 50 states, that we are complying with local laws and that everything is buttoned up,” Olecki said. He declined, however, to say whether the company would suspend foreclosure sales and evictions in states such as California if it did find systematic improprieties.

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After Foreclosure, a Focus on Title Insurance

Lenders require buyers to have title insurance, but sometimes they miss things and new issues can arise. Read the story here…

From the New York Times
By RON LIEBER
Published: October 8, 2010

When home buyers and people refinancing their mortgages first see the itemized estimate for all the closing costs and fees, the largest number is often for title insurance.

This moment is often profoundly irritating, mysterious and rushed — just like so much of the home-buying process. Lenders require buyers to have title insurance, but buyers are often not sure who picked the insurance company. And the buyers are so exhausted by the gauntlet they’ve already run that they’re not interested in spending any time learning more about the policies and shopping around for a better one.

Besides, does anyone actually know people who have had to collect on title insurance? It ultimately feels like a tax — an extortionate one at that — and not a protective measure.

But all of the sudden, the importance of title insurance is becoming crystal-clear. In recent weeks, big lenders like GMAC Mortgage, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have halted many or all of their foreclosure proceedings in the wake of allegations of sloppiness, shortcuts or worse. And a potential nightmare situation has emerged that has spooked not only homeowners but lawyers, title insurance companies and their investors.

What would happen if scores of people who had lost their homes to foreclosure somehow persuaded a judge to overturn the proceedings? Could they somehow win back the rights to their homes, free and clear of any mortgage? But they may not be able to simply move back into their home at that point. Banks, after all, have turned around and sold some of those foreclosed homes to nice young families reaching out for a bit of the American dream. Would they simply be put out on the street? And then what?

The answer to that last question may depend on whether those new homeowners have title insurance, because people who buy a home without a mortgage can choose to go without a policy.

Title insurance covers you in case people turn up months or years after you buy your home saying that they, in fact, are the rightful owners of the house or the land, or at least had a stake in the transaction. (The insurance may cover you in other instances as well, relating to easements and other matters, but we’ll leave those aside for now.)

The insurance companies or their agents begin any transaction by running a title search, sifting through government filings related to the property. They do this before you buy a home or refinance your mortgage to help sort out any problems ahead of time and to reduce the risk of your filing a claim later.

But sometimes they miss things, and new issues can arise later.

For instance, the person doing the title search may not notice that a home equity loan is still outstanding or that a contracting firm filed a lien against the owner years ago. That could create problems for you later, when you try to sell the home.

Then there are the psychodramas that can ensue. The previous owner’s long-lost heirs or a previously unknown love child could show up, saying that they never agreed to the sale of the property. Or perhaps there was fraud against a seller who was elderly or had a mental disability, or forgery of an estranged spouse’s signature. It’s rare, but it happens, and when it does, your title insurance company is supposed to provide legal counsel or settle with whomever is making a claim.

Title insurance companies would like you believe that they are the good guys standing behind you. After all, you are the customer who owns the policy.

In fact, many of the title insurance companies are more concerned about the real estate agents, lawyers and lenders who can steer business their way. The title insurance companies are well aware that most people do not shop around for title insurance, even though it’s possible to do so — say through a Web site like entitledirect.com.

While the title insurers are not supposed to kick back money directly to companies or brokers that send business their way, various government investigations over the years have turned up all sorts of cozy dealings that make you shake your head in disgust.

But since you have to buy the insurance if you need a mortgage, there is not much you can do except hold your nose.

That’s what John Kovalick did in January when he bought a foreclosed house in Deltona, Fla., for $102,000 from Deutsche Bank. But in recent weeks, he’s seen the headlines about other banks halting foreclosures and wondered whether something might have gone wrong with the foreclosure on his new house. A spokesman for Deutsche Bank declined comment.

Mr. Kovalick is not the only one pondering what could go wrong. While the banks were pressing the pause button on many foreclosures, some title insurers were growing concerned as well.

On Oct. 1, Old Republic National Title Insurance Company released a notice forbidding any agents or employees to issue new policies on homes that had been recently foreclosed by GMAC Mortgage or Chase.

Clearly, the title insurer was also worried about a situation in which untold numbers of former homeowners have their foreclosures overturned. At that point, those individuals might claim the right to take back their old homes, but they’d also be responsible for, say, a $400,000 loan on a home that is worth half that.

So what would happen next? The banks that foreclosed might start the process over again. At that point, lawyers for the people who had been foreclosed upon might take the next logical step and try to show that the banks never had the documents to prove ownership of the mortgage in the first place. The banks might settle at that point, writing checks to everyone who had gone through a disputed foreclosure in exchange for each of them giving up the title.

But if banks did not settle, or the evicted homeowners refused to settle and fought on and won, they might end up owning their homes once again and not owing the bank either.

Or banks might agree to slice a big chunk off the remaining balance in exchange for a release from any liability for the errors it made.

At that point — and again, this is what Old Republic and investors in other title insurers fear — those homeowners might actually want to move back in. But some foreclosed homes were sold by the banks to others who now live there. And those new residents would have big, fat title insurance claims if their predecessors ever turned up at their doorsteps, proclaimed them trespassers and told them to leave.

“All of these Joe Schmos who did everything legally would then be in the middle of it, too,” said Mr. Kovalick, who manages an auto repair shop and is now hoping not to be one of those Schmos.

“Now, you’d have two total disasters,” he said. “How would you like to be the judge to get that first case?”

While homeowners like Mr. Kovalick may have title insurance, it generally covers them only for the purchase price of the home. When you buy a home out of foreclosure, however, it often needs a lot of work. “If I bought it at $200,000 and it’s a steal but I had to gut it and sink $100,000 more in, my recovery is limited if there is a problem,” said Matthew Weidner, a lawyer in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Indeed, this possibility has occurred to Mr. Kovalick, who has plans to put an addition on his home and is asking how he could extract that investment if someone ever turned up on his doorstep and asked him to leave. “What do I do, take the paint off the walls and the custom blinds off the windows?”

Chances are, it will not come to that. After all, title insurers could settle with the previous residents, allowing them to walk away with a big check to restart their lives elsewhere.

Still, for anyone considering buying a bargain home out of foreclosure anytime soon, consider asking your title insurer if any special riders are available that can cover appreciation on your home in the event of a total loss.

That said, if you can possibly help it, stay away from foreclosed homes until the scene shakes out a little bit.

Some people will undoubtedly make a fortune investing in these properties in the next few months. But if your down payment represents most of what you have in the world, it’s hard to justify betting it all on a situation like this one.

When the Big Boys Admit to Flaws in the Disclosure Process, Can the Little Guys be Far Behind?

From the New York Times
By DAVID STREITFELD
Published: September 30, 2010

The foreclosure machinery that has forced millions of Americans out of their homes is beginning to seize up as some lenders and their lawyers are accused of cutting corners in their pursuit of rapid home repossessions.

Evictions are expected to slow sharply, housing analysts said, as state and national law enforcement officials shine a light on questionable foreclosure methods revealed by two of the country’s biggest home lenders in the last two weeks.

Even lenders with no known problems are expected to approach defaulting homeowners more cautiously and look more aggressively for resolutions short of outright eviction.

Despite the turmoil, some economists said the breakdown could ultimately lay the groundwork for a real estate recovery.

Stricken neighborhoods across the country, for example, could benefit. One big factor undermining home sales is fear of a large number of foreclosed homes coming to the market. If the foreclosures are delayed or never happen, housing prices might find a floor.

“Maybe this is like shock therapy,” said the economist Karl E. Case. “Maybe this will actually get the lenders to the table and encourage them to work out deals that are to the benefit of everybody.”

While such a happy ending is possible, the near term is more likely to produce paralysis and confusion.

As more defaulting homeowners become aware of the lenders’ problems, they are expected to hire lawyers and challenge the proceedings against them. And if completed foreclosures were not properly done, families who bought the troubled homes could be vulnerable to claims by the former owners.

Apparently alarmed about such a possibility, one of the major title insurance companies, Old Republic National Title, has sent a bulletin to agents saying that “until further notice” it would not insure title to properties foreclosed upon by GMAC Mortgage, the country’s fourth-largest home lender and one of the two big lenders at the center of the current controversy.

GMAC declined to comment, and Old Republic representatives did not return calls.

GMAC has acknowledged legal missteps in processing mortgages, and JPMorgan Chase has acknowledged the possibility of missteps, and both have suspended all foreclosures in the 23 states where they need a court’s approval. That’s 56,000 in the case of Chase alone; GMAC declined to provide a number.

Attorneys general in half a dozen states are demanding action or opening investigations. The Treasury Department said Thursday it was asking regulators to look into “these troubling developments.”

“We’re seeing a fundamental breakdown in the system, because no one cared that much about getting things right,” said Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat of Florida, who unsuccessfully asked the Florida Supreme Court to halt all foreclosures in that state.

Wall Street was examining the impact the disclosures could have on the lenders. Moody’s Investors Service has placed the servicer ratings of GMAC and Chase on review for possible downgrade.

The federal government has been the majority owner of GMAC since supplying $17 billion to prevent the lender’s failure during the financial crisis.

Other lenders said Thursday that their foreclosure filings, including the crucial affidavits, had been properly done.

A Citigroup spokesman said the lender required “annual training for our foreclosure employees on the proper execution of affidavits, including having personal knowledge of the information in the affidavit.”

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman said “the affidavits we sign are accurate.” A spokesman for Bank of America, Rick Simon, said, “We do not have anything to tell you at this time.”

GMAC and Chase are in trouble because, overwhelmed with foreclosures, they tried to process them as quickly and cheaply as possible, defense lawyers say. The companies say they are reviewing their procedures to take care of any violations.

The missteps stemmed from the affidavits the lenders file as they seek a quick or summary judgment in thousands of foreclosure cases. The affidavits state certain facts about the case, including the amount owed, which the signer indicates he has personal knowledge of. Without the affidavit, the lender would have to prove the facts at trial.

In depositions taken by lawyers for homeowners, executives at GMAC and Chase said they or their teams signed 10,000 or more affidavits and related documents a month. That did not give them time to review the cases.

Defense lawyers say the disclosures are symptomatic of the carelessness, if not outright fraud, that lenders have been exhibiting for years in their rush to file cases. Many necessary documents have disappeared, with defense lawyers saying the lenders often do not even have standing to foreclose.

In a number of pending cases in Florida, defense lawyers there said, GMAC has already withdrawn affidavits. The lawyers said they would try to have the cases thrown out for possible fraud, although they acknowledged that might be difficult.

GMAC said it would refile the affidavits. Chase said it had not withdrawn any affidavits.

“The way the plaintiffs’ lawyers have handled this has corrupted our legal system,” said Thomas Cox, a Maine lawyer whose deposition of a GMAC executive in June helped prompt the current disclosures. “They tried to manufacture foreclosures the way you’d manufacture cars, on an assembly line. It can’t be done that way.”

Mr. Cox is representing pro bono a rural woman who is in foreclosure on a $82,000 mortgage. The plaintiff in the case is Fannie Mae, the mortgage holding company that failed during the financial crisis and is now under government conservatorship. GMAC serviced the loan for Fannie Mae.

This week, the judge in the case set aside his summary judgment in favor of Fannie when he read Mr. Cox’s deposition of a GMAC executive, Jeffrey Stephan, who said he never reviewed the file he had signed. The case will now go to trial.

“I don’t think they are going to give up easily,” said Mr. Cox.

As the foreclosure crisis has deepened, the length of time borrowers spend waiting for the end has lengthened.

In January 2009 the time between the owner’s first missed payment and eviction was 319 days, according to LPS Applied Analytics. By August it was 478 days.

Since spring, the data firm says, the lenders have been trying to clear their backlog. They have stepped up the rate at which they put defaulting owners into the formal foreclosure process. In August, they started 283,000 foreclosures, up from 220,000 in April.

Now, as the lenders are pressed to examine more closely their filings, those foreclosure starts are likely to fall, prolonging the owner’s time in limbo. Many borrowers use this period, when they are living in their home but not paying for it, to try and get their financial house back in order.