Friday, May 30, 2008

Short Sales: Are They Worth a Buyer's Time?

Yes. No. Maybe. If you’re looking for an absolute, don’t bother reading this post. I’ll go out on a limb and say usually it’s a waste of a buyer’s time—the odds are certainly against it.

What is a short sale? It’s a sale where the debt owed combined with the costs associated with the sale exceed the property’s market value. Creditor(s) MAY be willing to agree to allow the property to be sold for less than the loan amount.

You can recognize these listings by key phrases in the comments section such as “short sale” or “third party approval required” or “lender approval required.”

As a seller, how do I go about a short sale?
Every bank is different. At a minimum, you will need to establish that you are financially incapable of paying the loan(s). You must submit W-2s, bank statements, tax returns, a “hardship letter” stating the reason the credit should consider granting a short sale, and other financial statements outlining your assets and liabilities. The hardship letter is particularly important. Stating that your house isn’t worth what you paid for it is NOT a hardship. You must establish why you are no longer able to afford the payments.

As a buyer, I keep hearing that Short Sales don’t close. Why not? Can I do anything about it?
Some close, but it’s true that most do not. A quick search of the local listings showed 282 active short sales. In the past 90 days, only 35 closed. That’s a very poor hit rate. Short sales are typically priced at or just below current market value, and that’s reflected in the close price of those 35 homes—average closed price was $367K versus an average list price of $373K—98% of asking!

The overwhelming majority of short sales don’t sell and/or close because of one of these reasons:
(1) They aren’t priced competitively so don’t get any offers. On the flip side, sometimes they are priced at a low price that the bank will never accept!
(2) The sellers have not met the lender’s requirements to approve a short sale (e.g., have not submitted a hardship letter or otherwise proven that they can no longer afford the payments
(3) A secondary or tertiary lien holder has not approved the sale (if the first lienholder isn’t getting paid in full, the guys behind him are making nothing, and so have zero incentive to sign off on a deal). Often in this situation they will ask for a personal Promissory Note from the seller. If the seller refuses, it will scuttle the entire deal.
(4) The lender has received all of the paperwork but is “stringing along” the seller to collect a few more payments
(5) The lender has received all of the paperwork but is planning on foreclosing and collecting the mortgage insurance.

Buyers have no control over any of these reasons. Sellers have limited control over some. But it only takes one of these to prevent a short sale, so the odds are against it. In particular, if the bank is bound and determined not to approve a short sale (reasons 4 and 5), then no one can make them. If a seller is determined that they do not want to attempt to repay any of their debts (reason 3) then it’s not going to happen. Reasons 1 and 2 have a much better chance of closing. But why would a homeowner and agent list a home when it’s either overpriced or when the paperwork isn’t in? Lots of reasons: naiveté, ignorance of or inexperience with the process, denial. Why would an agent waste their time with a listing that won't sell? In most cases, there’s no real ‘cost’ to them. Agents decide individually how they want to market properties and how much they'll spend doing so. So they choose to spend nothing, and infact, they still get some free advertising via the yard sign and mere existence of the listing.

How can buyers identify a short sale that is more likely to close? Agents can put basically anything they want in the comments, but a few key phrases give you slightly better odds:

  • Bank already approved price of $x/Short sale already approved
  • Only one lien
  • No waiting/bank ready to close/can be closed immediately
  • Paperwork already submitted
  • Quick Response/Turnaround in x hours/days/weeks

And of couse, you should have your buyer agent contact the listing agent to see what the status of the paperwork is. If the agent doesn't know or doesn't return the call, it's likely to be a waste of your time as a buyer.

Buyers, remember that, just like with foreclosures, timing is a big issue and so taking your chances with a short sale isn’t for everyone. With every passing week, banks are getting more efficient at processing these, so we might see more short sales and foreclosures closing. There’s also speculation that banks have too much real estate owned (REO) on their balance sheets, which impacts their regulatory capital requirements; so they may very soon be more amenable to short sales in the months to come.

Read More: Foreclosure Risk Series

Read More: Understanding the Difference Between Short Sales, Foreclosure Auctions, and Bank Owned Properties (aka REO)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You are right on the money with your info on short sales. I have had several close this spring but have a lot more that I know will never close. I don't encourage my buyers to go after them if they ask my opinion. I do leave it up to their REALTOR...but the buyers inevitably ask my opinion, so I give it.
Congrats on setting up your home buying education class in Arlington. I specialize in FHA/VA lending. I'm currently looking to set up a VA class on or close to a couple of the military bases in our area. Education is key in this market and obviously a great way to build your business. Good Luck with sales and the seminar.