Is the foreclosure crisis over? Yes and no. Since 2007, about six million homes have been sold at foreclosure sales (Foreclosures Public Data Summary Jan 2015). Today, about one million homes are still somewhere in the foreclosure process. Homeowners behind in their payments have declined from 15% at the 2010 peak of the crisis to less than 8% now (MBAA delinquent plus in foreclosure at 12/31/14). Most of the still-troubled loans were originated before 2007. The best news is that new foreclosure starts are now down to pre-crisis levels, at less than one-half of one percent of all mortgages, if we take 2006 to be the pre-crisis level.
So new home loans, those made since 2008, are doing very well, and what remains is the legacy of those bad loans that triggered the crisis, right? Not exactly.
The first problem is to define what we mean by pre-crisis levels. Subprime mortgages expanded rapidly from 2000 to 2007, accounting for an ever-increasing share of all mortgages, and skewing delinquency rates upwards. So for a real pre-crisis baseline, we need to go back to earlier times, or to look at mortgage default rates for prime and FHA loans only. Today in 2015 there are virtually no subprime mortgages being originated. As the inventory of old subprime loans winds down, we should expect to see default rates well below those for the early 2000s, and we are not there yet.
The second problem is negative equity. At the end of 2014, 16.9% of residential mortgages were underwater, i.e. the debt exceeded the current home value. Home price appreciation is not projected to solve this problem any time soon. This situation is historically unprecedented, and leaves millions of homeowners at continuing risk of default should the economy falter.
The third problem is the fragile inventory of nontraditional and modified loans that remain from the subprime bubble. There are perhaps 3 to 4 million active mortgages that were modified to avoid foreclosure in the past seven years. Some of these have temporarily low rates, as low as 2%, that will adjust upwards soon. Others have large balloon payments or payment terms than extend for 40 years, making repayment or refinancing difficult. And of course there are still plenty of homeowners stuck in non-amortizing mortgages or ARMs that are vulnerable to coming interest rate hikes.
At this point, we can begin to identify some lessons from the long and painful process of deleveraging America's homeowners. In future posts I hope to look at some available data showing what worked and what didn't, as we consider various policy measures to reform housing finance and mortgage foreclosure.