Homeowners in financial trouble often redefault

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Lenders are ramping up efforts to avoid home foreclosures, but a report by bank regulators says more than half of borrowers who get help fall behind again. More than 50 percent of homeowners with loans modified in the first half of last year had missed at least two months of payments a year later, the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision said Wednesday.

But the results were better among those who saw their payments drop substantially.

About one in three borrowers whose monthly payments were reduced by 20 percent or more had fallen behind again within a year. That compares with more than 60 percent for borrowers whose loan payments were left unchanged or increased.

The report by highlights a significant challenge for the Obama administration’s plan to tackle the foreclosure crisis, backed by $50 billion in money from the financial industry bailout fund.

The administration’s effort got off to a slow start, but has picked up speed in recent months. As of last month, about 360,000 borrowers, or 12 percent of those eligible, have signed up for three-month trial modifications. They are supposed to be extended for five years if the homeowners make their payments on time. There is currently no data on redefaults within the plan.

Traditionally, most lenders have offered payment plans that allowed borrowers to catch up on missed payments. But those modifications often do not involve an interest rate reduction and result in a higher monthly payment.

All that does is set the borrower up for failure, said Kristi Cahoon, an attorney and housing counselor with Legal Services of Northern Virginia. “A lot of them aren’t true modifications,” she said.

By contrast, under the Obama plan, she believes the loans will be sustainable for the homeowners she counsels. Borrowers’ interest rates, for example, can go as low as 2 percent for five years under the Obama plan.

Bank regulators say they have pressed lenders to shift their focus to modifications that reduced borrowers’ payments. They made up nearly 80 percent of new modifications in the April-June quarter, up from about half in the first three months of the year.

The report covers 34 million loans, representing more than 60 percent of primary home mortgages. Consistent with other reports, it showed borrowers are continuing to fall behind as job losses mount. More than 11 percent of borrowers covered by the report had missed at least one payment as of June 30, up from 10 percent in April.

It also highlighted mounting problems with an especially troubling category of loans – “pick-a-payment” or option ARM loans, which allowed borrowers to defer some of their interest payments and add them to the principal. At the end of June, 10 percent of these loans were in foreclosure, more than triple the rate for all mortgages in the survey.

The lenders included in the report offered help to about 440,000 borrowers in the April-June period, they started foreclosure on about 370,000 homes, unchanged from the January-March period.