Foreclosures in February soared 30 percent in 12 months, increasing 6 percent over January. The rise cannot be blamed on the lifting of moratoria on foreclosures alone because moratoria instituted in January by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and leading lenders remain in effect to allow defaulting borrowers to participate in the Administration’s new foreclosure prevention program.
RealtyTrac said last Thursday that foreclosure filings — default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions — were reported on 290,631 U.S. properties during the month, an increase of nearly 6 percent from the previous month and an increase of nearly 30 percent from February 2008. The report also shows one in every 440 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing in February.
Ten days ago, Jay Brinkmann, MBA’s chief economist and senior vice president for research and economics, attributed an 8 percent increase in fourth quarter delinquencies to various state and local moratoria on foreclosure sales, the holiday halt on foreclosure sales announced in late November by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a general reluctance by servicers to proceed with evictions in the last few weeks of December, and a slowing down caused by an overburdened legal process in some areas.
The foreclosure numbers cannot be attributed to the lifting of moratoria alone because most of those moratoria are still in effect. The size of the January to February increase “is somewhat surprising, given that many of the foreclosure prevention efforts and moratoria in place in January were extended through most of February as well,” said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. He noted only two moratoria that ended during the month. A 45-day voluntary moratorium in Florida expired at the end of January and foreclosure activity there was up 14 percent from the previous month. Many New York foreclosure proceedings delayed by a new law for an extra 90 days appear to have hit the system in February, when the state’s foreclosure activity increased 23 percent from the previous month.
The 30 percent increase over last year’s foreclosure rate exceeds predictions by some experts who put the number for 2009 around one million foreclosures. What’s causing the increase? Are we seeing foreclosures resulting from layoffs during the fourth quarter of 2008? Are Alt-A and option ARM resets now playing a major role. The top three states in the RealtyTrac report posting the highest foreclosure rates are California, Nevada and Arizona—noted for their option ARM and Alt-A business.
When the moratoria are eventually lifted, will they unleash a spate of foreclosures of borrowers who failed to modify their loans during their grace period?
If foreclosures continue to soar this year rather than leveling off as many in the Administration hoped and predicted, what will it mean for the housing markets and for the nation’s economy as a whole? How large is the window opportunity for the new foreclosure program to work before new initiatives will be needed to restore housing markets to health? Should we brace ourselves for record numbers of foreclosures in the months to come that will swamp the Administration’s new modification program?
In the next three months. RealtyTrac’s reports—the most timely source of national foreclosure data—will go a long way towards answering those questions over the next three to six months.