Beware The Craigslist Rent Scam

Regretfully, all is not what it seems on CraigslistOn a recent REO listing we received numerous calls inquiring whether the property was for rent or for sale.   Shortly after we posted the home on the multiple listing service someone posted a Craigslist ad offering the property for rent at a ridiculously low price.  The ad actually copied our MLS headline and verbiage word-for-word.  This was an upscale property in remarkably good condition for an REO.  We expected a lot of inquiries, but not from renters.

Some of the callers had driven by the property, noticed our lawn sign, figured the spoof and called to tip us off.  One of the parties answered the ad and received a response from an “absentee owner” with elaborate instructions regarding deposit, credit check, keys, etc.

This isn’t the first time someone rent-spoofed one of our REO listings. The last time we got tipped off, one of my staff posed as a prospective renter and carried on a clever reverse spoof with the scammer by email. She filled out a long application under a celebrity name, answered by a request for a photo.  She sent a photo of another celebrity, answered by a request for a money order for the deposit.   The scammer explained how they really wanted someone who would take good care of their home while they were overseas, how they would take time out of their busy schedule to fly home and deliver the keys once the deposit had cleared.

Game on. The scammer fell for the spoof, apparently not picking up on the celebrity name or photo.  This is where it got interesting.  My assistant crafted a passable, but obviously mocked-up money order and sent it.  After a couple of days, the scammer responded furiously, all upset that the money order was a fake, going on and on about how someone would take advantage of him that way. Finally I weighed in and emailed the fellow explaining the spoof, how much fun we had, and the implications of the fraud he was attempting.  He wrote me back telling me to “go and die.”

Although we’ve been tipped off to only a couple of instances over the last three years, it’s probable that this goes on all the time. The sad part is, like all internet scams, they must work sometimes.  If people didn’t fall for them, they would stop.  Beware the Craigslist rent scam, and warn everybody you know:  don’t pay for anything you can’t verify! If you are even slightly suspicious, consult a professional.

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The Ethical Dilemma of Strategic Walk-Aways

Owners that can actually make their loan payments, but choose to walk away, accounted for 1 in 4, or 25% of all foreclosures as of June 2009.   That was over six months ago, and the numbers have probably gone up since the initial studies (these data can be easily verified via a quick Google search).  Strategic default is an ethical dilemma, and the discussion is burning up cyberspace. On one hand, there is a moral obligation to honor your contract.  If you owe more than your house is worth, one way or other you gambled on your equity and came up short.  Maybe you bought at the top of the market, or took out an equity line of credit and bought some stuff; a car or TV, or maybe even another house.  Regardless, it’s not your lender’s fault that your property value went down.  After all, if your property went up in value you wouldn’t turn around and give the bank extra, right?  If you buy gold, and it loses value, you don’t get your money back, you wait it out. If you loan money to a friend, and he loses it all, you would still expect him to pay you back, especially if he can afford it.  The value of a promise doesn’t flex due to circumstances, or whether you are the giver or the receiver.  If you can make your house payments, it’s the right thing to do. On the other hand, are the banks responsible for some of this mess?  Should they share the burden? Didn’t they sort of tease us into all these high-risk loans and credit cards?  In the first few years of the Y2K decade, the FED, major lenders, and real estate professionals convinced us that everybody in America could buy a home.  They made you feel foolish if you didn’t.  It was like manifest destiny,your birthright, your duty. You could get a home loan if you had a pulse.  You could qualify just because you said so, no matter if you could actually afford one. Lenders didn’t seem to care if you were truthful in your loan application.  Certainly they knew they were making questionable loans, gambling on equity just like us.  Aren’t the financial institutions culpable, too?  Didn’t they practically beg us into this? The survival of our economy depends on everybody doing the right thing.  Imagine the consequences if all borrowers that owe more than their house is worth but can afford the payments choose to walk away, or if all the lenders call in all the notes on properties that won’t appraise for the full amount.

So, who gets the free morality pass?  Who gets to choose what’s fair? Is personal credibility negotiable?   Is the golden rule irrelevant?  Do we just step off when times get tough? Is this the new American paradigm? Not surprisingly, real estate professionals are leading the charge in advising people to walk away.   Not ironically, real estate professionals were leading the charge 4-6 years ago advising people take on these same loans.  Whatever it takes to earn a fee.  Maybe it’s time for an industry gut check.

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Is There Really A Shadow REO Inventory? Part Two

No doubt there is a shadow inventory.  In fact, our sources indicate a substantial, almost incredible number of foreclosed homes in the national bottleneck.  Our original post on this topic was “Shadow Inventory, yes.  Banks holding back, not likely”. As indicated, this was posted in rebuttal to the referenced WSJ article, last July.

Of course a lot can change in 6 months.  Since then we have come to believe that Fannie Mae is, in fact, deliberately holding back inventory, a probable attempt to stabilize or stimulate values, another ill-fated artificial manipulation of the marketplace.  Only government-sponsored enterprises (GSE) can get away with holding non-performing debt rather than having to liquidate it.  Apparently the recent near collapse of Fannie and Freddie did little to cure their attitude.  How can you hold onto to non-performing debt and survive?  Obviously you can’t.

The fallout of this strategy of the GSEs is that the major banks like Wells and BofA now have to follow suit, whether they want to, or whether it makes good business sense, or not.

It’s amazing how resilient and patient these guys are.  First they absorb all the bankrupt competition and all the non-performing debt.  Then, the government traps then into partnership through TARP and forces them to take bailout money they don’t want.  Then, moratoriums and intervention handcuff them and prevent them from doing any sensible business at all.  In the meantime, the media vilifies them and the public hates them.

But these guys are the only hope.  They are the only survivors amongst dozens of bankrupt banks.  They survive through fiscal responsibility and good management, two concepts that seem to elude all federal agencies.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were saved from bankruptcy by bailout from the federal government, the largest debtor in the world. The only reason the federal government isn’t not bankrupt already is because they can print money (see our blog “What Is The FED?, Part Two” 10/3/09).  These are proven fiscally irresponsible agencies.  They maintain the illusion of being in control of our economy.  They are manipulating national housing, foreclosure and lending laws, with no consistent vision or policy.  This is a disaster.

The irony in San Jose and Silicon Valley is that Fannie and Freddie haven’t been much of a player here.  For the past 10-12 years our average values were above FNMA limits.  All these ’05 loans that are foreclosed are from non-GSEs, yet our marketplace is captive to their manipulations.

So, we wait.  In the meantime it’s a warzone: lots of buyers, no inventory.  It’s all in the bottle.  Heck of a recovery strategy.  Let it out!  We can sell it! NOW!

If the federal government, the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would get out of the way, maybe we can get out of this mess. Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten into it in the first place.  Let the banks do their job.

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Whatever Happened To Common Courtesy?

What is it with real estate agents who don’t return phone calls, reply to email, or respond to inquiries?  It’s like an epidemic, especially with REO or short sale agents.  Look, we all know you’re busy, but how about a little common courtesy? You’re giving us all a bad rap.

If I leave you a voice mail, have someone call me back, for crying out loud. How difficult is that?  If you’re so busy that you can’t handle the volume of calls, you can afford to hire a staff to do it for you.  If not, you should change your outgoing message from: “Your call is very important to us,” to: “Sorry you called.  We’re too busy to acknowledge you, so don’t leave a message because we won’t call you back.”

I’d guess you don’t ignore your REO clients, asset managers or short sale negotiators.  You wouldn’t leave them in voice jail; you probably respond immediately.  Why should buyer agents be treated any differently?

Buyers and their agents have a right to expect a timely response to inquiries, and especially to offers.  Maybe it’s just a simple question about the availability or status of a listing, whether it’s worth the time and effort to draw up an offer.  Maybe I just want to know if you actually received my offer.  I don’t know how many offers I’ve submitted which were never even acknowledged, even after numerous calls and email.  Eventually I discover the pending sale on the MLS.  That’s more than discourteous; it’s a professional slap-in-the-face.

We have more communication devices than ever before. It should be easier than ever to respond to each other.  We’re so connected that it’s nearly impossible to disengage.  So, why can’t you call me back? Or send a text?  Or something?  Isn’t that what your blackberry or iPhone is for?

Imagine if your doctor suspected you had a brain tumor, but after a series of tests he didn’t return your calls.  Would that cause you some anxiety?

Buyers are in a battle zone right now, getting beat up by multiple offers, and buyer agents are getting worn out.  Give ‘em a break and show a little courtesy. Call them back.  That’s the least you can do.

Being an REO broker, I know how busy the phones and email can get.  Still, I believe that we have a professional obligation to be as responsive and timely as possible.  If you call my office during regular business hours you should get a response within 60 minutes; if after hours, by the next business day.  If not, please email me directly.

How To Get A Loan On A Bank Owned Property

OK, so let’s say you are a first-time home buyer and home prices have finally reached a place where you can afford to buy.  You’ve got some money for a down payment, and you’ve been pre-qualified for a home loan.  Maybe you’ve even made offers on short sales that seem to go nowhere, and you’re getting frustrated waiting for something to happen.  You’ve found a foreclosure that you like.  Sure it needs a little work, but it’s in your price range and you’re not afraid of a little sweat equity.  After all you’re pretty handy with a hammer and a paint brush.

Here’s the challenge: bank owned properties typically need repair, but the seller (bank) wants an a-is offer and will neither make the repairs or pay for them.  Meanwhile, your lender (also a bank, maybe also the seller) will likely require repairs before they will make the loan.  Seems kind of self-defeating, and it is by conventional methods.

You can’t afford the repairs because you’re using all your savings for the down payment.  So what do you do?

Build the repairs into your offer.  Ask your lender or Realtor for a list of typical items that the lender will require, then go and perform a thorough visual inspection of the property.  Estimate the amount you’ll need and add it into your offer price, then ask the seller to credit you for repairs.  You have to keep it reasonable, though, say within 3-5% of the offered price.  Most bank sellers will entertain this kind of offer, and it can even work for FHA and VA loans.

The point is to ask for these concessions up front.  Once you have presented your offer, it will be nearly impossible to ask for additional concessions.  The easier you make it for the seller, the more likely they are to agree.

VA Loans On Bank-Owned Properties?

VA loans are just as likely to succeed with REO as any other conventional loan, they just take a bit more work and preparation.  They can also be competitive, but the competition is fierce for well-priced homes.  That may change some over the next few months, since we expect the available inventory to increase.  Since February the national foreclosure moratorium clogged things up, but that’s started to loosen.  So, patience and persistence will pay off.  Hang in there.

With a VA loan, try to get a termite report in advance.  The idea is to structure your offer to allow some buyer money to pay for repairs.  If you know what the cost will be, you can ask the seller for a specific credit for VA required repairs in your offer, say in lieu of a credit for closing costs, then add the amount to your offer price.  Most REO sellers will consider this an attractive offset.  If you include the report and the Section I estimate, it would be a compelling offer.  Sometimes the listing agent will have a report already, if not call in some favors and get your own.  Of course this could get spendy if you have to do it over and again.  Keep an extra watch for listings that are seasoned for 60 days or more because there will be less competition, but your VA offer should stand well among multiple offers.  Seller will almost always ask multiples for a ‘final highest and best’ counter offer, so you might get a second shot at the price.

Loan Modification? Borrower Beware!

There’s a lot of buzz about loan modification, a process where borrower and lender renegotiate the terms of a home loan so that the monthly payments are lowered.  Either the interest rate is reduced, or the repayment term is lengthened, or both.

The federal government, that is, both the administration and Congress, seem to think loan modifications are key to correcting the home loan mess.  We disagree.

In fact, our opinion is that in general, loan modification only adds to the problem.  We read recently where something like 3 out of 4 modified loans re-default within 6 months.  6 months!  What are the numbers after 12 months?  Basically, loan modifications are just extending bad debt further.  This is exaggerating the problem, not solving it.  Still, individual borrowers may get some short-term relief from a loan mod.

But be careful!  We’ve heard some horrible stories about people who still lost their home to foreclosure after paying lots of front money to “professionals” who offered to negotiate a loan mod.  They take your money, do nothing, and then they stop answering the phone.

Always interview more than one lender, ask a lot of questions, and don’t pay anything up front.

First Line Of Defense: Deed In Lieu Of Foreclosure

If you owe more than your house is worth and are having trouble keeping up with your payments, this is our first recommendation.

Very simply put, a Deed In Lieu of Foreclosure gives the property back to your lender, who forgives the debt, and you walk away mostly intact.  You suffer far less damage to your credit and the lender suffers fewer losses than with either a short sale or a foreclosure.

If the circumstances allow it, this is door #1.  Ask your lender about it, they should be very helpful in determining if this will work for you.  After all, they’re plenty motivated to cut their losses, which are already substantial.

What is REO?

REO means: Real Estate Owned.  Generally, this is a term commonly used in reference to bank-owned properties or properties that have been foreclosed.

More specifically, these are properties that revert to the lender after the borrower defaults on the loan.  The process is complex, but in the end the lender takes the property back and there is no longer a loan, hence Real Estate Owned.

When I first started in real estate, I thought that REO meant Real Estate Owed.  At least that’s what I heard, and it didn’t make any sense.  I couldn’t figure it out no matter how my broker explained it to me.   What a difference one little letter can make.  If only I owned everything I owe.

Short Sale to Foreclosure?

It’s almost certain in Silicon Valley.

Because of the overwhelming number of short sale offers, it can take months before the bank can review yours.  If there is a second lender, it could be another few months before you get a response.

Meanwhile, if the seller misses enough loan payments, the foreclosure process starts almost automatically, with a definite time-line.  It’s common that foreclosure will happen before the bank can respond to a short sale offer.

We’ve noticed that home values in some local areas have slipped lower than they were in 1997.  Chances are good that if you bought a home in the last 10 years, you owe more than your home is worth.

Before you try a short sale, ask your lender if they will consider a Deed In Lieu Of Foreclosure.  Just call customer service.  This is one of the least understood, yet best alternatives to foreclosure, and well worth the time to check it out.  You might not qualify, but if you do, it may save you from foreclosure.