28 March 2020

Agencies Give Some Relief to Foreclosed Homeowners

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Mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will allow homeowners who have been foreclosed upon to repurchase their homes at market value even if they owe more, reversing a policy that prohibited such transactions. The change comes as Melvin Watt, the director of Fannie and Freddie’s regulator, has come under increasing pressure from some groups to use the companies to provide more relief to struggling homeowners.

Previously, someone who lost a home through foreclosure and wanted to buy it back from Fannie or Freddie needed to pay the full amount owed on the mortgage, even if the market value of the home was less. That was intended to take away the motivation for homeowners to intentionally default in order to get the balance of their mortgages reduced.

In effect, that meant Fannie and Freddie had two standards where they would be willing to sell properties they owned to a new buyer at market prices when they wouldn’t do so for the former homeowner.

The old policy drew the ire of some politicians and nonprofit groups, which argued that it encouraged homes to stay vacant and hurt neighboring property values. In June, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley sued Fannie and Freddie, alleging that the policy violated a Massachusetts state law that allowed market-value sales to foreclosed-upon homeowners in some circumstances. That lawsuit was dismissed in October.

However, the impact of the change could be limited. It will only apply to the 121,000 homes that Fannie and Freddie have already foreclosed on and own, a provision that’s intended to curtail any incentive for borrowers in good standing to default. That narrow scope is unlikely to quiet the drumbeat for the FHFA to make bigger changes intended to help a larger number of borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth.

Foreclosed-upon borrowers will also still need to find the cash or financing to buy the old home back at market value, a tall order for those with tarnished credit histories. Since Mr. Watt took office in January, many politicians and nonprofit groups have asked that he allow Fannie and Freddie to reduce the principal of mortgages for borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth, a step that he has so far avoided taking.

The new policy in effect reduces mortgage principal, albeit for a small number of foreclosed-upon borrowers. Some nonprofit groups said that Fannie and Freddie would be better served to reduce the borrower’s principal before a foreclosure.

Click here to access the full article on The Wall Street Journal. 

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