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Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Growing Foreclosure Crisis

By Dina ElBoghdady and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 17, 2009; A01

One oft-repeated assertion no longer holds true. Those in trouble are not, primarily, lower-income borrowers. The foreclosure crisis has become a wave, afflicting neighborhoods of every stripe -- but particularly communities created by the boom itself.

Before Robin Bohnen and her husband, Shane, bought a $1.16 million Mediterranean-style house in an upscale Southern California suburb two years ago, they were not cash-strapped, debt-ridden or credit-impaired.

Now they are all of the above. Soon they also may qualify for one more distressing category: home lost to foreclosure.

"Wake me up, can this really be happening?" the 42-year-old Bohnen says. As she tries to describe how it feels to have the nation's financial crisis land in her living room, the phone rings. She ignores it. "It's probably the bank -- again," she says.

Bohnen once owed her comfortable lifestyle to the dizzying growth that transformed Southern California over the past decade, creating a boom that led many to believe their home values would keep climbing. As the owner of a furniture store born during the housing boom, she provided bean bag chairs and bedroom sets for the brand-new communities that easy credit built.

Now, she and husband just owe. They cannot afford their $6,400 monthly payment, and in this plummeting market, they wouldn't make enough on a sale to pay off their mortgage or recoup the 20 percent they put down to buy their Riverside County home.

They're "underwater," industry parlance for borrowers who owe more on their mortgage than their houses are worth. They have joined the growing line of homeowners seeking a break from their lenders.

Both the departing and incoming administrations in Washington have promised help on the foreclosure front, but providing help requires federal regulators to get their collective arms around the size and shape of the crisis. That isn't easy. No one agency collects information on every loan, every borrower and every delinquency.

But interviews and a Washington Post analysis of available data show that the foreclosure crisis knows no class or income boundaries. Many borrowers ensnared in the evolving mortgage mess do not fit neatly into the stereotypes that surfaced by early 2007 when delinquency rates shot up. They don't have subprime loans, the lending industry's jargon for the higher-rate mortgages made to borrowers with shaky credit or without enough cash for a down payment.

The wave of subprime delinquencies appears to have crested. But in October, for the first time, the number of prime mortgages in delinquency exceeded the subprime loans in danger of default, according to The Post's analysis.

This trend shows up most acutely in California and other high-growth regions, such as Arizona, Nevada, Florida and pockets of the Washington region, most notably in Prince William and Prince George's counties.

The recession has made it tougher for people to pay their mortgages, and crashing home prices have left many borrowers underwater, unable to sell or refinance their way out of trouble. One of every five mortgage holders now has a home worth less than the mortgage on it, according to First American CoreLogic, a firm that tracks mortgages and provided data for The Post's analysis.

Of the 20 Zip codes with the highest share of underwater loans, seven are in California and four are in Riverside County, the vast exurb southeast of Los Angeles where the Bohnens live. Riverside's unemployment rate has zoomed to 10 percent, well above the national average of 7.2 percent. About 94,200 people in the county are looking for work, many of them formerly employed in the real estate, banking and construction industries, according to the county's economic development agency.

The foreclosure crisis hasn't played itself out. The next wave looms in the form of a new batch of adjustable-rate mortgages scheduled to reset over the next two years. Unless the market comes back with a roar, which is unlikely, more borrowers will struggle to hang on to their homes.

Southern California was the epicenter of the housing bubble, in many ways. Four of the largest lenders had offices there, and Riverside County became a showcase for how communities can create wealth through real estate. Now the county is a case study of what can happen when the only industry in town is growth itself.

To be continued

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