South Florida ranks among the top metro areas in the number of mortgage modifications, an indication that lenders are making progress in addressing the region’s housing debacle, industry observers say.
Lenders have approved 46,032 trial or permanent modifications in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties since the Home Affordable Modification Program started in 2009. The region trails only more-populous Los Angeles and New York in helping owners keep their homes and avoid foreclosure, according to the latest government statistics.
Modifications are still a challenge, though. More than 92,000 have been attempted in South Florida, so roughly half haven’t worked, the figures through May show.
Banks are much more responsive to offering meaningful help to homeowners after the $25 billion foreclosure settlement announced in February, lawyers and analysts say. The nation’s five largest lenders agreed to settle claims that they used faulty documents to repossess homes from 2008 through 2011.
Before the settlement, modifications consisted mostly of lowering interest rates and adding years to the mortgages. That cut monthly payments only by about $200 or so, leaving many homeowners to complain that the relief wasn’t enough.
But now lenders are much more receptive to offering meaningful help to homeowners, including mortgage balance forgiveness, observers say.
“They’re giving people a reason to keep paying,” Sunrise lawyer Gary Singer said. “They’re saying, ‘If we’re going to do a loan modification, we’re going all the way.'”
Singer said a lender forgave $112,000 in principal for one of his clients paying about $4,000 a month on an “underwater” mortgage. The bank also slashed the interest rate to 2 percent from 7 percent, reducing the monthly payments to $2,300, he said.
West Palm Beach mortgage banker Adam Cohn said he was able to persuade a lender to forgive $50,000 from one man’s underwater loan.
Once the loan amount was lowered to less than the home’s appraised value, Cohn said, he was able to get his client a new mortgage from another bank with a cheaper interest rate. That left the client with several hundred dollars a month he could spend on other things, Cohn said.
“The banks will do it, but it is a fight,” he said.
Despite South Florida’s ranking for loan modifications, some distressed homeowners insist the process remains flawed, with lenders losing documents or not returning phone calls.
Bank of America started sending letters to homeowners in May, offering to reduce mortgage balances, but the lender told Bloomberg News that responses have been lower than expected.
Nationally, about a million loans have been modified since 2009. The Obama administration originally predicted at least 3 million homeowners might be able to get their loan terms changed.
“So many people have given up,” said Ken Thomas, an independent banking analyst and economist based in South Florida. “They figure it’s not worth the hassle.”
Fort Lauderdale lawyer Joe Kohn said he turns away most homeowners seeking help with modifications because he doesn’t think they can qualify.
“I’m not seeing a big improvement,” he said.