Foreclosure Alternative: The Short Sale

By: Gwen Moran

Published: July 8, 2010

A short sale is far from hassle-free, but it’s a better alternative than foreclosure. And now you’ve got a little help from your friends in D.C. Here are the facts about short sales and how to get started.

Short sales get government incentives

Although short sales are not hassle-free, at least you’ve got the government backing you. The Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA) program provides financial incentives for lenders and borrowers to avoid foreclosure through short sales or deeds in lieu of foreclosures.

Participation in the HAFA program requires adherence to guidelines–including a standard process and minimum timeframes–that speed the process, says Dallas-based REALTOR® Tom Branch, co-author of Avoiding Foreclosure: The Field Guide to Short Sales. The HAFA program is for homeowners who can’t keep their homes with the help of a loan modification.

Advantages of a short sale

  • You can be a homeowner again more quickly with a short sale in your past than with a foreclosure. New Fannie Mae guidelines help you qualify for a new mortgage in as little as two years after a short sale, as opposed to up to seven years after a foreclosure.
  • You will have more time to make relocation plans and save money than with a deed in lieu. A short sale may take four to 12 months. A deed in lieu of foreclosure arrangement typically requires you vacate your home within 30 to 60 days of signing, according to real estate attorney Lance Churchill.
  • You can receive up to $3,000 from your lender for moving expenses at the time of closing of a HAFA short sale or a HAFA deed in lieu of foreclosure. Relocation funds are part of the incentives of HAFA, but not necessarily for other short sale or deed in lieu programs of the lenders.
  • You can help your community’s home values. Because the lender often receives a higher amount of the remaining loan balance than it would from the sale of a home after a foreclosure, short sales help support home values in the surrounding community.

Disadvantages of a short sale

  • Your credit score will take a severe hit. But that would happen anyway with a foreclosure. Fair Isaac, creator of the FICO score, says foreclosure and short sales have virtually identical impacts on your credit score. VantageScore–a company that has created a credit score model for consumers–says a short sale will lead to only a marginally lighter hit when compared with foreclosure.
  • You may owe additional taxes. In the past, if your outstanding mortgage was $100,000 and your lender accepted a short-sale purchase offer of $90,000, you were liable for income tax on the forgiven $10,000, says Harlan D. Platt, economist and professor of finance at Northeastern University in Boston. However, the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007, which runs through 2012, generally allows taxpayers to exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence in some circumstances. Full relief is available only if the amount of forgiven debt doesn’t exceed the debt that was used to acquire, construct, or rehabilitate a principal residence. Consult a tax professional and an attorney to minimize or avoid this liability.
  • In some states, your lender may still be able to come after you for the difference between the short sale price and the amount needed to pay off the mortgage. Your actual agreement with your lender and state and local laws and regulations spell out the details. Consult a tax professional and an attorney to minimize or avoid this liability.

How to proceed with a short sale

  • Find a qualified REALTOR® experienced in short sales. Short sales are tough to navigate, and they’re further complicated by your loan type–FHA vs. Veterans Administration vs. conventional loans. Real estate agents who specialize in short sales will know the proper steps and order of the steps involved. They’ll also be able to navigate the many parties involved in the process and over-burdened loss mitigation departments. Look especially for agents who have Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource (SFR) Certification, which requires specialized training.
  • Gather evidence to support your need for a short sale as opposed to a foreclosure. You’ll need to prove that you have little or no equity in your home, you’re behind on your payments, and you’re no longer able to afford your home. You’ll need to write a hardship letter to the lender describing your circumstances, such as a divorce, job loss, illness, death, or other event that has impacted your income.

A short sale can be a time-consuming process, but if you can avoid foreclosure, it’s worth it in the long run.

Gwen Moran has been writing about business, finance, and real estate for more than a decade. Her work has been published by Entrepreneur, Newsweek.com, Financial Planning, Woman’s Day, and The Residential Specialist. She bucks the cottage trend and lives in a Colonial near the Jersey Shore.

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