From the Wall Street Journal:
Some Buy a New Home to Bail on the Old
Fannie Plans Rules To Avoid Practice Described as Fraud
By NICK TIMIRAOS
June 11, 2008; Page A3
In markets hit hardest by falling home prices and rising foreclosures, lenders and brokers are discovering a new phenomenon: the “buy and bail,” in which borrowers with good credit buy a new home — often at a much lower price — then bail out of the “upside down” mortgage on their first home.
Homeowners are able to pull off this gambit — which some lenders and real-estate agents call mortgage fraud — by taking advantage of mortgage-lending practices that allow them to buy a new primary residence before their existing residence has been sold. And with the lending industry in disarray as it tries to restructure millions of mortgages, some boast they are able to pull off the strategy with ease.
In some cases, homeowners are coached through the buy-and-bail process by real-estate agents and brokers who see nothing wrong with it. Some blame the phenomenon in part on lenders’ unwillingness to cut deals or restructure loans made when home prices were inflated. “It’s just a business decision,” says Linda Caoili, a Sacramento real-estate agent who is working with Ms. Augustine and others who are considering walking away from their mortgages. “If you’re upside-down $250,000, why would you keep it? It just doesn’t make sense.”
To be sure, walking away from a mortgage, even if legal, has plenty of drawbacks: Borrowers lose the ability to take out unsecured loans, since foreclosures can stay on a credit report for seven years. In some states, lenders can sue for assets, including a new house. Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage underwriter, recently revised the amount of time borrowers with a foreclosure must wait to receive a home loan to five years from four. Proposed Fannie Mae guidelines, which could take effect later this month, also would require those borrowers to make a 10% down payment and meet a minimum credit score after the five-year period.
While buy-and-bail is on the rise, the practice doesn’t appear to be widespread. Credit is much tighter now than it was during the real-estate boom, and most families with an upside-down mortgage likely will hold on to their homes and hope the market improves in the future — even though many of them could lose their properties.
The mortgage industry is starting to wise up to the practice and is scrambling to fight back. Buy-and-bail is “certainly fraudulent and unfortunately on an uptick,” says Gwen Muse-Evans, vice president for credit policy and controls at Fannie Mae. Although she doesn’t have data to quantify the size and scope of the trend, Ms. Muse-Evans says overwhelming anecdotal reports have prompted the agency to draft tougher regulations aimed at closing one big loophole that allows underwater homeowners to qualify for new home loans.
That loophole currently works like this: Homeowners provide a rental agreement showing that they will rent out their first home, and underwriters allow rental income to cover as much as 75% of the mortgage payments on the first home when determining whether the borrower can make payments on two homes. This allows homeowners to secure a second mortgage that they might not otherwise afford.
Under revised Fannie Mae guidelines, which could take effect next week, loan applicants who claim they will rent out their first home will have to produce supporting evidence, including an executed lease agreement. Borrowers also will have to prove that they can pay the mortgage, property taxes and insurance for both residences. The guidelines will make an exception only for borrowers who have at least 30% equity in their current home.