More Bank-Owned Homes Likely to Hit the Market



Original Post Date: May 28, 2010

By: James R Hagerty

It’s a bit like guessing how many pennies are in a gallon jug at the state fair, but housing analysts keep trying to count how many foreclosed homes banks and mortgage investors own.

Why should we care? Unlike at the state fair, there is no prize for guessing right. Still, if we can track the number of these REO (“real estate owned”) homes, we can get some sense of how banks and others are doing in their efforts to dispose of the properties and how much longer they will be weighing on the housing market.

The good news is that two of the leading contenders in this guesstimating game–Tom Lawler, an independent housing economist and gentleman farmer in Leesburg, Va., and Robert Tayon, an analyst at Barclays Capital in New York–have been comparing their methods recently and learning from each other. Both are in the same ballpark and both say the REO count is on the rise.

Mr. Lawler estimates there were 574,000 one- to four-family REO homes at the end of the first quarter, up from 518,000 at the end of 2009 but well below a peak of 668,000 in the third quarter of 2008. More modest (honest?) than most economists, Mr. Lawler describes his estimates as “crude” and “a work in progress.” He figures his tally is too low–he can’t find good data on all of the thousands of REO owners– but still “indicative” of the trend.

Mr. Tayon of Barclays estimates that REOs totaled 522,000 in March, up from 479,000 at the end of 2009 but below the peak of 688,000 in September 2008.

After soaring in 2008, the REO total shrank for most of 2009 as foreclosure-prevention efforts slowed the flow of defaulted loans toward resolution and investors rushed to buy what they saw as bargains in hard-hit areas such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. Now, as banks and other loan servicers work their way through the backlog of loan-modification applicants and reject many of them, the REO count is rising again. Mr. Tayon expects it to peak at 538,000 in August 2011 before starting to decline gradually.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two of the biggest holders of REO, both expect their REO inventories to increase in the next few quarters, Mr. Lawler says.

The expected rise in REO supply will “challenge” housing markets in areas with high concentrations of foreclosures, Mr. Lawler adds. But he doesn’t think the effect on prices will be as severe as it was in late 2008 and early 2009, when loan servicers dumped huge amounts of property on the market.

There are still plenty of struggling borrowers at risk of losing their homes. The Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group, last week reported that 14% of mortgage loans on one-to-four-unit homes were 30 days or more delinquent or in the foreclosure process as of March 31. That represents about 7.3 million households. The rate was 12% a year earlier. At the same time, fewer people have fallen behind in recent months as the economy has improved.

Those who want to guess how many REOs will be in the jug two years from now will have to take a view on whether the economy is going to produce enough jobs to create demand for all those houses.