Banks are so overwhelmed by the U.S. housing crisis they've started to look the other way when homeowners stop paying their mortgages.
The number of borrowers at least 90 days late on their home loans rose to 3.6 percent at the end of December, the highest in at least five years, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association in Washington. That figure, for the first time, is almost double the 2 percent who have been foreclosed on.
Lenders who allow owners to stay in their homes are distorting the record foreclosure rate and delaying the worst of the housing decline, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com, a unit of New York-based Moody's Corp. These borrowers will eventually push the number of delinquencies even higher and send more homes onto an already glutted market.
``We don't have a sense of the magnitude of what's really going on because the whole process is being delayed,'' Zandi said in an interview. ``Looking at the data, we see the problems, but they are probably measurably greater than we think.''
Lenders took an average of 61 days to foreclose on a property last year, up from 37 days in the year earlier, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a foreclosure database in Irvine, California. Sales of foreclosed homes rose 4.4 percent last year at the same time the supply of such homes more than doubled, according to LoanPerformance First American CoreLogic Inc., a real estate data company based in San Francisco.
``Some people stay in their houses until someone comes to kick them out,'' said Angel Gutierrez, owner of Dallas-based Metro Lending, which buys distressed mortgage debt. ``Sometimes no one comes to kick them out.''
Banks are reluctant to foreclose on homeowners for a variety of reasons that include the cost, said Peter Zalewski, real estate broker and owner of Condo Vultures Realty LLC, a property consulting firm in Bal Harbour, Florida.
Legal fees and maintaining a vacant property while paying the mortgage, insurance and taxes can add up to as much as 15 percent of the value of the home, and it may take months for the foreclosure to work through the legal system, he said.
``The end result is taking back a property that the bank will have to manage, rent out and or sell,'' Zalewski said.
In many cases, lenders also have to foot the bill for fixing up vacant homes that have been vandalized.
Real estate broker Georgia Kapsalis is offering a home for sale in Birmingham, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, where the owner last wrote a mortgage check in July. He still lives in the house, she said.
``Some of the banks just don't want the houses to be empty, especially if it's in an area where there's a lot of theft or there are five other houses empty on the street,'' said Kapsalis, who works at Added Value Realty LLC in Livonia, Michigan, another Detroit suburb. ``They'll lose toilets, plumbing, appliances, everything. Banks are getting wise and allowing people to live there longer.''
Alexis McGee, president of Internet database Foreclosures.com in Sacramento, California, said she toured a property where the departing resident tried to make off with the outdoor air conditioning unit by sawing the metal legs off its concrete apron.
``People take what they want to take,'' McGee said. ``They feel that they're owed.''
``What are the banks going to do?'' Fishman said. ``They don't want the house. They have a mortgage for $1 million and the house is worth $750,000.''
In February, 5 million existing homes were sold on a seasonally adjusted, annualized rate, down 31 percent from the peak of 7.25 million in September 2005, data compiled by the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors show. More than 4 million existing homes were on the market in February, 53 percent more than the 2.6 million average of the past nine years, the Realtors reported.
``Excess inventories pose the biggest risk to the market,'' Michelle Meyer and Ethan Harris, New York-based economists at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., wrote in a report last month. ``As long as inventories are high, home prices will fall.''
Growing inventory pulled median home prices down to $195,900 in February, a 15 percent drop from the peak of $230,200 in July 2006, the Realtors said.
New foreclosures rose to 0.83 percent of all home loans in the fourth quarter from 0.54 percent a year earlier, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The civil court in St. Lucie County, Florida, is getting about 44 foreclosure cases to file every day. That's the same number it averaged in a typical month in 2005, said Clerk of the Circuit Court Ed Fry.
``It's pretty overwhelming,'' he said.
Fry said he has 12 full-time employees and two temporary workers he just hired handling nothing but foreclosures. Still, the 50-page filings sit in cardboard boxes for three weeks before the court staff can process them, Fry said. Then it takes another two months to get a date on the court docket, he said.
Mortgage servicers, who collect monthly payments and are responsible for starting the foreclosure process, also were caught short-staffed, said Grant Stern, a mortgage broker and owner of Morningside Mortgage Corp. in Miami Beach, Florida.
``The most experienced people you can bring in are origination people,'' Stern said. ``But for a bank it's a moral hazard to have the same people who originated the loans now modifying those loans. That wouldn't be desirable. Once around is enough.''
The five largest servicers -- Countrywide Financial Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., CitiMortgage Inc., Chase Home Finance Inc. and Washington Mutual Inc. -- together manage more than half the home loans in the U.S., according to New York-based National Mortgage News, an industry publication.
While more than 100 mortgage originators have suspended operations, closed or sold themselves since the beginning of 2007, mortgage servicing units are expanding.
Chase Home Finance, a unit of New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the fourth-largest U.S. servicer, expects to spend $200 million more servicing loans in 2008 than it did last year, said spokesman Thomas Kelly.
Kelly wouldn't say how many Chase borrowers have quit paying their mortgages and remain in their homes.
Efforts to keep borrowers paying their bills have slowed the foreclosure process, Mark Rodgers, a spokesman at CitiMortgage, a division of New York-based Citigroup Inc., said in an e-mail message.
``In a number of cases, we have delayed foreclosure proceedings to allow our loss mitigation teams additional time to explore potential solutions to keep distressed borrowers in their homes,'' Rodgers said.
Joe Ohayon, vice president of community relations for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Frederick, Maryland, a unit of San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, said trying to modify loan terms case by case adds time to the foreclosure process.
``Foreclosure is only a last resort after all available options for keeping the customer in the home have been exhausted,'' Ohayon said in an e-mail message.
Olivia Riley, a spokeswoman at Seattle-based Washington Mutual, said in an e-mail that the company's goal is to keep customers in their homes ``with payments they can afford.''
Representatives for Calabasas, California-based Countrywide, the biggest U.S. mortgage servicer last year, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Few mortgage companies will admit they allow homeowners to stay in their homes without paying their bills.
``No servicer will say you can live rent-free for six months, go ahead,'' said Paul Miller, a mortgage industry analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey & Co. in Arlington, Virginia. ``Eventually, the servicers will clear these guys out.''
Homeowners usually get 90 days to resume paying before foreclosure proceedings begin with the filing of a complaint or notice of non-payment.
State laws determine the length of time between the filing and an auction of the house. In most states, it's two to six months, according to Foreclosures.com. In Maine, it can be up to a year and in New York, 19 months; in Georgia, it's as quickly as one month, and in Nevada, it can be 35 days, according to the database.
Borrowers in California who fight foreclosure can stretch the process to 18 months, said Cameron Pannabecker, chapter president of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers and president of Cal-Pro Mortgage Inc. in Stockton.
That doesn't take into account the woman he knows who hasn't made a mortgage payment in eight months and hasn't heard from her lender, Pannabecker said.
``Now she's afraid to mail in a payment for fear it'll come to somebody's attention,'' he said.