Foreclosure: Now an Upscale Blight

With the U.S. economy and financial markets showing signs of life, optimistic analysts are looking for a recovery in the all-important housing sector. They got some ammunition on June 2 from the National Association of Realtors, which said that its Pending Home Sales Index jumped in April by the most in more than seven years.

But housing can't revive as long as the market is being flooded with homes that are falling into foreclosure. And far from going away, the problem is broadening. It's not just about subprime anymore. Now, people with excellent credit who never dreamed of getting in financial trouble are being dragged down by a dangerous cycle of rising unemployment and falling home prices. That is going to prolong the foreclosure crisis and, inevitably, inhibit the recovery of the rest of the economy.

Any illusion that prime loans would emerge unscathed was shattered by a May 28 report from the Mortgage Bankers Assn. "For the first time since the rapid growth of subprime lending, prime fixed-rate loans now represent the largest share of new foreclosures," the bankers said. The grime in prime was responsible for the worst performance on record for the U.S. mortgage sector in the first quarter: Nearly 13% of loans were delinquent or in foreclosure, the most since the bankers started keeping tabs in 1972. The problems were worst in the bubble states of California, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada.

The biggest factor in this second wave of foreclosures is the inability of distressed homeowners to sell in order to pay off their debts. Prices in bubble cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Miami are down less at the high end of the market than at the bottom, according to data from Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price indexes. But that's cold comfort to people who haven't managed to sell at all. According to research by the National Association of Realtors, there are enough $750,000-plus homes on the market to cover more than 40 months' worth of demand at the current rate of sales. That's four times the rate of oversupply in the housing market as a whole.

Unemployment is exacerbating the problems at the top of the market. The jobless rate for adults with a bachelor's degree or more may not sound too high at 4.4% in April given the overall April jobless rate of 8.9%. But it's more than double the rate of 2% a year earlier. And many families in that segment of the population built their finances on the assumption of continuous full employment, so they can't cover the mortgage when even one spouse is out of work.

Consider the plight of Stephanie and Bob Walker, who bought a $799,000, three-bedroom home in Los Angeles with a view of the Hollywood sign in 2006 but are losing it because last year Bob stopped getting computer consulting work that used to pull in about $240,000 a year. Bob eventually landed a job paying $60,000, and Stephanie found work as a $13-an-hour temp, but it wasn't enough to cover their mortgage and credit-card debt, which was swelled by about $130,000 worth of home renovations. They listed the house last year for an "optimistic" $875,000 but didn't get any takers. After months of price cuts and threats of foreclosure from the bank, they're days from closing on a sale at $700,000 that will assuage their primary mortgage lender—but leave them under pressure from other creditors. "We had no expectation things would come crashing down as fast as they did," says Stephanie. "We had no one to blame but ourselves. We didn't have a backup plan if he lost his job."

The economics at the top of the market aren't as advantageous as they are at the bottom, where first-time home buyers are flocking to lower-priced homes, spurred by low interest rates, temporary tax credits, and a drop in prices that has made owning cheaper than renting in many cities. At the high end, homes are too expensive for most first-time buyers, and move-up buyers can't purchase a home without selling property they already own. What's more, financing is far costlier, if it's available at all, because private investors have lost their appetite for big mortgages. Rates on "jumbo" loans—that is, those too big to be purchased by Fannie Mae (FNM) or Freddie Mac (FRE)—are roughly a percentage point higher than those for loans that conform to Fannie and Freddie's purchase limits. (Those limits range from $417,000 to $730,000, depending on local housing costs.)

An inflation panic in the fixed-income market is the latest blow to homeowners who are trying to sell to avoid foreclosure, because it's pushing up mortgage rates and pushing potential buyers out of the market. Rates on 30-year fixed, conforming mortgage loans jumped nearly half a percentage point, to 5.25%, in the week ended May 29 from a week earlier, according to the Mortgage Bankers Assn. Meanwhile, the market is unlikely to get much help from the Obama Administration's foreclosure-prevention program. Although it's somewhat more ambitious than the Bush Administration's program, it is voluntary for lenders and is off to a slow start since its March inception.

When will this second wave of foreclosures crest? David Crowe, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, doesn't see the peak coming until 2011, later than most other experts predict. Foreclosures typically top out after unemployment does, and Crowe doesn't expect that to occur until late this year. After that, Crowe says, more people will lose their homes because of upward resets on adjustable-rate mortgages. Credit Suisse says mid-2010 is the peak for scheduled resets, and resets will stay high well into 2012. While most of the subprime loans issued during the boom years have been washed out by now, there are still about half a trillion dollars' worth of option ARMs, which allow borrowers to add unpaid interest to the principal they owe. There's an even more alarming $2.5 trillion in "alt-A" loans, which are between prime and subprime and include a big chunk of the mortgages that required little or no proof of income or assets. Most of these loans were issued to people with relatively good credit who were buying more expensive homes.

A key unknown is how many middle- and upper-income homeowners will simply walk away from homes that are worth less than the mortgages on them. So far few have. Whitney R. Tilson, managing partner of New York investment firm T2 Partners and co-author of the book More Mortgage Meltdown, expects the ranks of walk-aways to increase, exacerbating foreclosures. But Rick Sharga, senior vice-president of RealtyTrac, a foreclosure data specialist, disagrees. "To sign a contract for a house and then walk away from it runs counter to everything we were taught," says Sharga, who predicts foreclosures will dip slightly in 2010.

Even if foreclosures don't rise, the rate is already so high that it will put considerable pressure on the national housing market for at least two more years, says Mark Hanson, managing director of Field Check Group, a Menlo Park (Calif.) research firm.

While forecasts differ in detail, the clear message is that foreclosure is going upscale. And that means the housing bust won't end anytime soon.

With Brian Burnsed

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