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Short Sales Can Offer Savings, but Often More Complex

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(MCT)—In months of house hunting, Carrie Hennessy saw places she liked and places she could afford — but none that checked off both boxes. Then she found a 30-year-old, three-bedroom colonial in Ramsey, N.J., on the market for less than $400,000, in a neighborhood where similar homes had sold for more than $500,000 during the housing boom.

Although the house was a good deal, it was also a short sale — that is, selling for less than the homeowner owes on the mortgage. These sales are often more complicated than other sales, because the seller’s lender has to accept a loss. And Hennessy’s deal hit a few bumps.

“It was challenging and time-consuming; it was a headache,” says Hennessy, a clinical director at an autism program. “But in the end, I’m really glad I did it.”

Hennessy closed on the home for $350,000 in less than four months. But — while some mortgage servicers have taken steps to streamline the process — the negotiations over a short sale can still stretch out for much longer, depending on the lender. Buyers who are in a rush are usually advised to stay away.

“We’ve had short sales get approved in five weeks, and others take a year and a half,” says real estate lawyer Jill Cadre of Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Short sales became more common in 2007 and 2008 as the housing bubble began deflating. With home values plummeting, troubled homeowners who couldn’t make their monthly payments found that they couldn’t just sell, because they owed more on their mortgages than the homes were worth. That left lenders with an unpleasant choice: Foreclose on the distressed properties, which involves legal costs, or allow the homeowner to sell the property for less than the mortgage amount, and forgive the difference — a short sale.

The biggest delay in many short sales is that the first mortgage is not the only lien on the property, says Allen Seelenbinder, a senior bank vice president. Homeowners who can’t pay the mortgage are “not paying other bills, either,” says lawyer Robert Bavagnoli of Totowa, N.J.

As a result, there may be second mortgages and other liens and judgments on the home. Dealing with all of those creditors can dramatically slow down a transaction or even torpedo it.

Hennessy, for example, was buying from an owner who had a total of four liens on the house — first and second mortgages, plus two unpaid loans. Her real estate agent, Rita Lutzer of Mahwah, N.J., had to negotiate the offer with all four lenders.

“The fun really started when it came time to get all signatures from the four individual banks,” Lutzer says. They tried faxing and scanning the documents, but those images weren’t clear enough.

“Ultimately, the original had to be FedEx-ed to each individual party all around the country for signatures,” Lutzer says.

Real estate professional Linda Stamker in Fort Lee, N.J., says she worked with a buyer who tried for eight months to purchase a house. The deal fell through because two lenders held liens on the home.

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