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RISMEDIA, July 17 2007—(MCT)—Thanks to a sharp rise in foreclosures, home buyers are increasingly likely to encounter bank-owned properties in the housing market — listed for sale, offered at auction or even touted as a “good deal” on lenders’ Web sites. But getting a bargain on a foreclosed home is hardly a sure bet.

Amid a housing slump that has pushed home listings to record numbers, lenders, too, are competing to sell homes, often through the multiple-listing service. Borrowers, in many cases, have been hurt in the slowdown by a loss of equity that could have helped them avoid foreclosure.

The increase in bank-owned properties comes as more homeowners, many in the suburbs, find themselves unable to keep up with payments on loans made during the housing boom, a time when low mortgage rates, relaxed lending standards and fast-rising home prices fueled a frenzied market.

Though it’s difficult to track how many foreclosed properties are listed for sale, agents who sell homes for lenders estimate they represent 10% to 15% of active listings in the Baltimore area.

In June, nearly 20,000 homes were on the market in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, according to statistics from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.
The number of lender-owned properties is expected to grow as billions of dollars in mortgages reset in coming months, triggering higher payments for homeowners.

Loans in the foreclosure process in Maryland soared nearly 30% in the first quarter compared with the first three months of 2006, and the number of borrowers at least 60 days behind on payments rose 20%, according to the most recent report by the Mortgage Bankers Association.

While Maryland is faring better than the nation as a whole, that still means about 5,700 Maryland homeowners were in danger of losing their homes in the first quarter.
Rising foreclosures could squeeze home values even more and prolong the slump, economists say.

“Eventually, foreclosures will be returned to the marketplace,” said Celia Chen, director of housing economics for Moody’s “Lenders have to take them back and sell them and try to sell them as fast as they can. … It will keep price appreciation weak.”

Local home listings, already at a record high, will climb even more, partly because of mounting foreclosures, said economist Anirban Basu, chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group Inc. of Baltimore.

“Inventory has been rising sharply, and it will continue to rise, with the impact of ARMs (adjustable-rate mortgages) resetting and foreclosure activity,” Basu said. “I don’t think we’ve begun to see that impact in a major way.”

Real estate agents and brokers, too, worry that putting more inventory into an already sluggish market will bring down prices and cause houses to sit longer.

Jennifer Marshall, an agent with Maryland REO real estate brokerage, said she is seeing the number of foreclosure properties soaring in suburban areas.

“With more inventory, it’s a buyer’s market now,” Marshall said. “People aren’t going to offer what the house is listed for. … It’s more challenging for agents, and you have to think about different ways to get your properties out there and get them sold.”

Banks are increasingly buying foreclosed properties back at auction as other bids fall short of the amount owed. That scenario has become more common as the number of owners with little or no equity — or even negative equity — has grown, particularly in cases of pricier homes with more recent mortgages.

“Because we’re seeing more expensive homes, higher-end homes going to foreclosure, logic indicates that less of those are being sold to third parties,” or buyers other than the lender,” said Donald Miller, national sales director for Express Auctions, of Baltimore. Miller said about 30 percent of the homes sold through his company’s foreclosure auctions go back to the lenders, but banks tend to buy back an even greater percentage at foreclosure auctions in general.

“As a general rule, the newer loans have less equity, so there’s going to be a higher percentage of buy-ins” by the bank, said Daniel M. Billig, a partner in A.J. Billig and Co., the Baltimore auction house.

Lenders’ bigger stakes mean they aren’t likely to discount properties they buy back and subsequently list, agents said. And lenders can invest thousands more to repair properties.
As a result, like other sellers, they’re looking to get top dollar, said David McIlvaine, an associate broker with Keller Williams in Ellicott City who sells foreclosure properties for lenders.

McIlvaine said when he began listing homes for lenders eight years ago, most of the homes were lower-end properties, typically city rowhouses.

“That’s not the case anymore,” McIlvaine said. “We’re seeing a more representative group of inventory crossing all lines.”

That’s because borrowers who stretched to qualify for more flexible loans — including adjustable rates, no down payments and interest-only payments — have been added to the categories of borrowers who had lost their homes to foreclosure due to job loss, illness or divorce, experts said.

“You’re seeing nicer homes, higher-priced homes,” agreed Jeff Rogers, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker who lists homes for lenders, who said some of the borrowers have owned their homes for two years or less. “You sort of saw that coming. Borrowers were being set up for failure with some of these mortgages.”

Miller, at Express Auctions, one of a handful of auction houses that handles the majority of foreclosure auction sales in the state, said investors continue to buy most auctioned properties that aren’t bought back by lenders.

But individual home buyers are starting to get into the mix, as investor Ed Kowalski has noticed.

“On a few occasions I have been outbid by owner-occupants,” said Kowalski, who buys, renovates and resells homes in Baltimore and Baltimore County. “Generally, they’ll pay more than I’ll pay as an investment.”

One home buyer who came to an Express Auction in May beat out an investor on a three-year-old house in Hampstead, with a winning bid of $567,500. Before the auction, the owners had listed it for sale at $1 million, Miller said.

The buyer of the property got a sprawling five-bedroom house with a master bedroom, sitting room with coffee bar, workout room, library and a three-car garage, in a neighborhood where houses have sold for more than $700,000.

Buying at foreclosure auction is not without hurdles.

Successful bidders often must pay a cash deposit, typically 10% of the outstanding loan amount. The new owner must pay off any liens or second mortgages. And properties are sold as is. And an owner or tenant living in the house may or may not be cooperative about moving out.

Sihin Shiferaw, an investor who buys and rehabs homes in Baltimore City and Howard County, mostly at auction, recently took a chance on a bank-owned home listed for sale. After signing a sales contract, she discovered water in the home’s basement and backed out of the deal, losing a $2,000 deposit.

Evelyn Ray, a real estate agent with Long and Foster in Bel Air, is hoping the increase in foreclosures might help some of her clients who are struggling to buy a house in the aftermath of a soaring market. Ray said she has begun looking for foreclosure properties to show her clients.

“Now, people just cannot afford the houses that are out there,” said Ray. “I have about 30 buyers who are just waiting. They either can’t afford the houses they want or are just scared or waiting for prices to come down, or they can’t sell.”

Cathy Holmes, a single mother of three who works as a biological lab technician at Aberdeen Proving Ground, hopes to find a deal on a foreclosed home as a last resort to finally be able to move from a rental apartment in Whiteford. Ray, her agent, has taken her to see several homes. But so far she hasn’t been able to come up with the deposit that would qualify her to bid.

“I’ve been renting the same apartment for 11 years, it’s just impossible to get out,” said Holmes, who is looking for a single-family house with some land. “I just want to have a house where I don’t have to hear the neighbors’ telephones ringing and their conversations. I look and I look and I look. I just can’t find anything that I can afford.”

Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.