Mortgage companies are knocking on doors, making phone calls and offering events in hotel ballrooms to persuade troubled borrowers to modify their home loans and avoid foreclosure. Financial companies say they want to avoid foreclosure as much as homeowners.
If you're in trouble, the Home Ownership Preservation Foundation runs a 24-hour hot line for any borrower at (888) 995-4673. EMC Mortgage Corp.'s Mod Squad, for EMC customers only, can be reached at (877) 362-6631.
New York As home foreclosures mount, mortgage companies are knocking on doors, sending letters and making phone calls with a simple message for struggling homeowners: They'd rather modify your loan than foreclose.
EMC Mortgage Corp., which has a $78 billion loan portfolio that includes subprime loans to homeowners with weak credit, last week launched a 50-person team it calls "the Mod Squad." Members will spend an unlimited time on the phone with troubled borrowers, sifting through their bills to compute a workable monthly payment. In an industry that often rewards workers for getting off the phone quickly, each team member has time to speak to as few as three people a day.
"You can't just run this like a call center; it needs to be run like a counseling center," said John Vella, president and CEO of EMC. Right now, $2.14 billion in mortgages, 2.74 percent of EMC's portfolio, is in default, up from 1.93 percent a year ago.
Lenders have long modified loans for homeowners facing job loss, illness, divorce or a death in the family. But with many borrowers across the country struggling to keep up with mortgage payments, mortgage companies increasingly are prodding anyone who's having trouble making payments for any reason to give them a call.
Critics say lenders made loans to borrowers who weren't creditworthy with terms that would be impossible for them to meet. Whether the current wave of workouts will merely postpone foreclosures - and delay bad loans hitting lenders' books - is an open question.
Do modifications work?
Regulators will be watching to see how many modifications are successful, said Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
The scant public information on modifications makes evaluation tricky, Thomas Lawler said. The former chief economist at Fannie Mae now runs his own consulting business, Lawler Economic & Housing Consulting, in Vienna, Va.
Loose lending standards followed by lax modifications can merely delay a problem, Lawler said. He pointed to the raft of modifications done in the manufactured housing business in the mid-1990s, when easy credit led to a wave of defaults and repossessions.
"If people had known what the servicers were doing, red flags would have been raised; but by the time people knew what was going on, it was too late," he said.
Advocates say that half the people in foreclosure never talk to their banker before losing their house, and many could rework their loans if they only got help.
"It's tragic," said Colleen Hernandez, president of the nonprofit Home Ownership Preservation Foundation. "We have the capacity to help a whole lot more people."
Calls to her group have picked up markedly. Its 24-hour hot line, (888) 995-4673, is getting 300 calls a day, up from 75 daily in the first quarter of 2006.
Civil rights groups last week called for a six-month moratorium on foreclosures resulting from high-risk loans given to people with shaky credit, arguing that lenders should help borrowers refinance their mortgages or face lawsuits.
New foreclosures hit their highest ever level in the fourth quarter of 2006, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Homeowners are the obvious losers, but all the financial services companies involved lose. The lender loses the steady stream of payments it counted on.
If it sold the loan as part of a securitization, a package of mortgage-backed securities, that investor loses. Loan servicers, who are usually paid a fraction of the interest on a loan, lose too.
Lenders are flexible
With home values falling in some parts of the country, none of the finance companies want to be stuck owning a house that has depreciated, or, worse, a house surrounded by other homes in foreclosure. EMC says it loses, on average, 40 percent of the value of a loan in foreclosure and also has to pay taxes and other expenses on the property.
"The larger the loss of value and the greater the likely loss will be, the more flexible we are," said Larry B. Litton, Jr., president and chief executive of Litton Loan Servicing in Houston, which services $60 billion in mortgages. "We may waive past-due amounts. In extreme situations, we may even waive principal, if need be."
Litton said his company is modifying about 1,000 loans a month, up from 300 to 400 about six months ago. Vella said he hopes the Mod Squad will be able to modify up to 2,000 loans a month; six months ago EMC modified only about 500 loans a month.
The Mod Squad has been getting an average of 600 calls a day since Monday.
EMC has hired an increasing number of contractors over the last three months to knock on the doors of shaky borrowers and drop off fliers asking the homeowners to call the company. Last month, the contractors visited 3,000 properties.
The Mod Squad is planning a six-city tour. It hopes to attract struggling homeowners to information and counseling sessions with offers of $100 gift cards to Home Depot Inc. The number is (877) 362-6631.
Companies with older programs are trying to stand out. The Hope program sponsored by GMAC ResCap and Homecomings Financial, which has a team of 20 loan workout experts, may change its name to differentiate itself from newer Hope programs, a spokesman said.