Extreme modifications: 2% mortgages

By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- At 8 a.m., homeowner Rodney Wynn was drowning under his $1,800-per-month, 13.4% interest rate mortgage. But by 5 p.m., he had found some relief: a 4.7% loan with a $970 monthly payment.

Wynn, a program director for a youth home in North Carolina, is just one of a growing number of homeowners getting dream workouts on their mortgages. Some are even getting sweet 2% deals.

Rosie Brooks had her $48,000 mortgage forgiven in exchange for a one-time $3,000 payment.

Nearly 80% of all loan modifications resulted in lower payments in the second quarter (the latest figures available), according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Office of Thrift Supervision. That's up from just over 50% three months earlier. Still, just a paltry 4% of all homeowners in need of workouts are receiving them.

When loans are made affordable, borrowers are less likely to default. A year after modifications, according to the OCC report, just 34% of borrowers whose loan payments had been reduced 20% or more had redefaulted compared with 63% of borrowers whose payments had been left unchanged.

"We're hearing there's a lot more give from lenders," said Rick Sharga, a spokesman for RealtyTrac, the online marketer of foreclosed properties. "It often makes sense for the banks to take anything they can get."

Wynn was able to get his modification at a "Save the Dream" event offered by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) in New York City last Friday.

Lenders from nearly all the major banks and servicers were in attendance and promising to restructure loans based on what borrowers could afford. As a result, many homeowners walked in with their mortgage problems and walked out with solutions.

In fact, according to Bruce Marks, NACA's founder, 40% of attendees left with decisions the same day. About 80% are expected to receive workouts within weeks. His organization has already hosted about 400,000 borrowers at more than a dozen of these events.

The most common restructuring seemed to be one that reduced interest rates to the minimum of 2% for the entire life of the loan. That's partially because NACA has agreements with all the top lenders to reduce interest rates to as low as 2% if that's what it takes to make loans affordable.

For example, Californians Steve and Elena Servi received a 2% fixed-rate loan from Wells Fargo that replaced the 6.75% adjustable rate mortgage on their Rowland Heights house.

"We had a jumbo loan and we thought no one would work with us," said Elena.

But it's in the bank's self interest to salvage deals -- even if it means slashing payments -- because the alternative, foreclosure, can cost them more.

"We're getting a lot of borrowers looking for a better interest rate," said Jason Ferebee, a Wells Fargo Community Relations exec who was supervising his company's operation at the NACA event.

He explained that his auditors send each applicant through a kind of flow chart, or "waterfall" as he called it, of possible fixes. It starts with seeing if they fit the guidelines for a Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) workout. If borrowers don't qualify, then the bank will go through a series of its own programs, ticking down the list to more radical cuts until they reach one that's affordable for the borrower.

At that point, the lender then decides whether it's more profitable to offer that workout or take the borrower to foreclosure. Most times these days, they try harder to make the modification work; foreclosures are simply too costly.

In the case of the Servis, their house had lost perhaps 40% of its value since they purchased it five years ago. Repossessing the home would have cost Wells Fargo more than $100,000 in lost value alone, plus the legal expenses, commissions, taxes and other expenses the bank would have incurred.

"I'd say we restructure loans for close to half the borrowers we see here," said Ferebee.

But wait, there's more

More severely stressed borrowers in many hard-hit areas have gotten even more radical deals. There are even some who are having their debts forgiven entirely.

"The interest rates they're offering [delinquent borrowers] are a lot lower than they used to be," said Tanya Davis, a foreclosure prevention counselor for Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People (ESOP) in Cleveland. "They cut them to 0% for three years, then 2% for a year, then 4%, capping out at 5%. I have a case where they lowered the interest rate to zero for the entire life of the loan."

Lenders are very reluctant to repossess properties in the worst hit parts of cities such as Cleveland, according to Jim Rokakis, treasurer of Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located. "Rather than going to a sheriff's sale, some banks are just giving back the houses," he said.

Rosie Brooks, a retired hairdresser, has been paying off her house for more than 20 years, but it hasn't been easy since one of her daughters came down with leukemia 10 years ago.

"She was very sick and that cost me every dollar I had," she said. "I got behind."

She had paid $38,000 for the house and had refinanced the loan a couple of times. By last year, her mortgage balance was more than $42,000. She no longer works and is dependant on Social Security. The payments became impossible to afford.

She contacted ESOP, and her counselor, Scott Rose, knew her lender was unusually sympathetic. Three weeks later, Rose was able to tell Brooks that he had gotten her a workout -- and it was a real dream.

The bank forgave her entire debt in exchange for a one-time payment of just $3,000, which Rose was able to obtain through a loan from the county's foreclosure-prevention program.

Why was the bank so generous?

"To some extent, there an altruistic component to it," said Rose. "Mostly though, it's because it's in the bank's financial interest." To top of page

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