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Survey: Homeowners Working With Servicers Often Blindsided by Foreclosures

Many housing counselors in California are seeing clients lose their homes while pursuing mortgage modifications. That’s not supposed to happen, but there have been no penalties for the banks involved.

In May, we published a story about how disorganization at the big banks has led to mistaken foreclosures: homeowners were under review for a modification, but were suddenly foreclosed on because of a communication breakdown within the mortgage servicer.

A recent survey of California housing counselors demonstrates that’s a widespread problem, at least in the Golden State.

The California Reinvestment Coalition surveyed more than 50 foreclosure-avoidance counselors throughout the state last month. The counselors who responded to the survey work at organizations that serve more than 11,000 homeowners each month.

One of the questions, spurred in part by our story, asked whether any of the counselor’s clients had seen their house sold in recent months while working with the servicer to avoid foreclosure. The administration’s mortgage modification program forbids servicers from conducting a foreclosure sale if the homeowner is in the midst of the modification review process, but there have been no penalties for banks that have done so. Homeowners also have no clear remedy in the event of a sale.

According to preliminary findings that CRC shared with us (the full survey will be released later this month), nearly two-thirds of the counselors said that at least one of their clients had been foreclosed on at the same time that banks were supposedly working with the homeowners on their mortgages. Another 23 percent said they’d been able to intervene to stop a sale. Counselors said they’d had this problem with many different servicers (including the largest ones: Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo). Only 16 percent of the counselors surveyed said they’d never encountered that problem.

The results show that more needs to be done to ensure homeowners are fairly evaluated for a modification before being foreclosed on, said Kevin Stein, CRC’s associate director. “This is such a basic failing of the system, and if we can’t agree to fix it, what hope can we have for more significant policy solutions to the crisis that could bring more relief to neighborhoods?”

State Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, is pushing a bill in California that seeks to address the problem. It would require the servicer to meet certain requirements to ensure that a homeowner is reviewed for a modification before foreclosure and would provide for penalties if a servicer broke the law and sold the house anyway.

Since our story in May, we’ve heard from a number of homeowners who told us they had lost their homes this way. Many have been in California.

Treasury Department officials told us that homeowners being foreclosed on despite being currently considered for a modification should call the HOPE Hotline (888-995-HOPE) for help. But as we noted, consumer advocates have complained that the hotline is often not effective in addressing servicer errors.

The servicers, for their part, say they are struggling with the high volume of delinquencies and do their best to avoid any mistakes. Vicki Vidal, of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said foreclosure errors are rare, particularly if struggling homeowners are prompt in contacting their servicer.

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