Real Estate

Homes entering foreclosure at record

The housing slump, Midwestern economic woes and resetting ARMs send late payments higher.

By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- The delinquency rate for mortgage borrowers spiked higher in the second quarter and the number of homes entering the foreclosure process hit a record high, according to a report released Thursday.

Deliquencies hit 5.12 percent of all outstanding mortgages, up from 4.39 percent a year ago, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) said in a quarterly survey.

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Serious delinquencies, those 90 days or more late, jumped to 1.11 percent of all loans, from 0.98 percent in the first quarter.

The loans actually entering foreclosure proceedings stood at 0.65 percent, a rise from 0.58 percent in the first three months - and the highest rate in the MBA's 55-year history. (Latest home prices - 149 markets)

More Americans are falling behind in their mortgage payments as stagnant home prices, auto-industry weakness and climbing interest rates have taken a toll on housing affordability.

The survey revealed steady increases in all categories of delinquencies among mortgage borrowers, but problems in subprime adjustable rate loans drove much of the increase.

"There is a clear divergence in performance between fixed rate and adjustable rate mortgages due to the impact of rate resets," said Doug Duncan, the MBA's chief economist.

Duncan called the delinquency trends "a story of seven states." There are the three midwestern states - Michigan, Ohio and Indiana - where defaults and foreclosures are linked to serious underlying economic and job issues. Michigan alone has lost 300,000 jobs since 2000.

Then there are the once red-hot housing markets of the Sunbelt. According to Duncan, homes entering the foreclosure process in Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada drove the national increase - the national foreclosure rate would have otherwise declined.

"The data shows dramatic effects of speculative investing in those four states," said Duncan. High levels of non-occupied houses there coupled with a high percentage of ARMs made markets particularly susceptible to delinquencies.

Many investors simply do not have the same level of interest in retaining their properties than do owner-occupiers who have, historically, always strived to keep their properties.

Coping with foreclosure

Delinquencies are expected to continue a steady climb for the next year or so. The number of adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) that reset to higher rates will peak this fall and many of those borrowers will likely fall behind on payments.

Many borrowers in default work out their problems without undergoing foreclosure. Some rework their loans in cooperation with their lenders, often cleaning up arrears by making extra payments later. Others get free of unaffordable ARMs by refinancing into fixed rates.

Many sell their homes before they lose them, especially if they still retain some equity in the properties. Even if there is no home equity, they may get their bank to agree to a short sale in which the bank will forgive the debt not covered by the sale of their houses.

A minority of homeowners will actually go through the entire foreclosure process and their numbers are not forecast to peak until 2008, as homeowners scrambling to find a solution to their unaffordable loans abandon the fight.

The ultimate foreclosure total may be influenced by several of the initiatives being discussed in Washington. President Bush floated some proposals last week that sought to help responsible borrowers stay in their homes.

Bush's proposals, if followed through on, could make it easier for some families to refinance from ARMs into fixed rates.

In addition, regulators recently informed mortgage servicers, which act as liaisons between investors and borrowers, that rewriting the terms of mortgages does not violate accepted accounting practices if it's done for the benefit of the investors. That should remove one of the legal stumbling blocks faced by servicing firms that want to help borrowers by modifying or refinancing their mortgages.

Other proposals - such as increasing cap limits on HUD loans - that offer some relief to troubled homeowners may also reduce the total of loans that actually go into foreclosure.

If, however, the housing-market slump deepens, delinquencies and foreclosures could worsen. And turmoil in the credit markets could tighten the liquidity squeeze that has made it much tougher for many potential home buyers - as well as owners looking to refinance - to obtain loans.

That has caused demand for homes to plunge in many areas and the national inventory of homes on the market has doubled over the past three years. There is now about a nine-month supply of listings at the current rate of sales. Top of page