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450,000 at risk in foreclosure-prevention program

By Tami Luhby, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Hundreds of thousands of troubled homeowners who are making lower mortgage payments on a trial basis are at risk of being kicked out of President Obama's foreclosure-prevention program.

Companies that service the mortgages have until Jan. 31 to review all trial modifications that have been underway for several months under the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), according to a Treasury Department guideline issued late last month. The Treasury Dept. said it would issue new guidelines next week, but wouldn't give details.

During the review period, servicers must determine whether borrowers have made all their payments and have handed in all the necessary paperwork. Those who haven't will get letters giving them 30 days to comply.

The goal is to clear up the backlog of borrowers stuck in trial modifications, in which a homeowner's monthly payments are lowered to no more than 31% of pre-tax income.

Some homeowners have spent seven or eight months waiting to hear if they qualify for a permanent adjustment to their mortgages.

This directive, however, has some bank regulators concerned.

"About 450,000 homeowners currently have HAMP trial modifications and have demonstrated a willingness and ability to make timely payments for at least three months," said Richard Neiman, superintendent of the New York State Banking Department.

"Now, unfortunately and very alarmingly, these same homeowners face the prospect of foreclosure strictly on account of documentation issues," he said.

Paperwork has proved a major stumbling block for the president's foreclosure-prevention program. Homeowners complain that their servicers continuously lose the documents they send in, while financial institutions argue that borrowers have not been sending in their paperwork.

Aware of the problem, Treasury officials said they plan to issue new guidance to servicers next week that will help expedite the conversion of borrowers in the trial period to permanent modification. It may also lighten the documentation requirements.

Converting to permanent modifications

Under fire for the low number of people receiving long-term help, the Treasury Department in late November ramped up pressure on servicers to convert borrowers to permanent modifications.

Some 66,500 people have received permanent adjustments, with another 787,200 homeowners in trial modifications.

Under the president's plan, delinquent borrowers are put into trial modifications for several months to make sure they can handle the new payments and to give them time to submit their financial paperwork.

Once the modification becomes permanent, servicers, investors and homeowners are eligible to receive thousands of dollars in incentive payments.

Overall, about three-quarters of people are making their payments on time, according to the Treasury Department.

Treasury officials already lightened the documentation requirements in the fall in hopes of speeding up the conversion process. But more needs to be done, Neiman said.

For instance, Treasury should accelerate its implementation of a standardized documentation form and the creation of a Web portal that will allow homeowners to track the receipt of the paperwork, he said. Also, it should allow servicers more flexibility in accepting alternative documents.

If this isn't done, a lot of homeowners could soon face foreclosure, he said.

"This is a real concern to borrowers, particularly borrowers who've continued to make payments for three, four, five, even seven months," Neiman said. To top of page

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