(MSNBC) -- It's a tarnished silver lining for people at risk of losing their houses and homeowners in neighborhoods blighted by bank-owned properties, but the robosigning scandal that slowed the foreclosure process to a crawl appears to have increased lender interest in short sales.
"Foreclosure sales are pretty devastating," said Faith Schwartz, executive director of Hope Now, a resource for homeowners facing foreclosure. "We'd much prefer a modification, but if [homeowners] don't quality, then the next best alternative is deed-in-lieu or short sales."
Short sales, in which the lender agrees to let the owner sell the home for less than the amount owed on the mortgage, and foreclosures both climbed in 2010, but while short sales rose by 26,000 this year, the number of foreclosures fell by 255,000, according to Hope Now. Short sales, along with deed-in-lieu of foreclosure deals in which the lender takes the deed essentially as payment for the mortgage, still upend families, torch credit ratings and hurt neighboring property values, but they're far less toxic than foreclosures.
Short sales are better for homeowners. They can stay in their homes, and the quicker process means they can begin rebuilding their credit sooner. Credit scoring firm Fair Isaac Co., which developed the FICO score, says foreclosures and short sales slash the same number of points from a homeowner's credit score. Homeowners with short sales may be able to obtain a loan sooner than foreclosed homeowners, though, which can improve their credit.
In some states, mortgage lenders can pursue a delinquency judgement against homeowners for the difference between the amount due on the mortgage and the purchase price at a foreclosure auction. A delinquent homeowner engaging in a short sale has an opportunity to negotiate away the bank's right to sue for that judgement.
The biggest plus for banks is that they stand to make more from a short sale than a foreclosure. According to foreclosure specialists RealtyTrac.com, the average price of a foreclosed home in the second quarter of 2011 was $164,217, while the average price of a short sale was $192,129.
Besides yielding less, foreclosures also cost lenders more in legal and administrative resources. "The incentives against foreclosing are even larger now," Karen Dynan, co-director of the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution, said via email. "Servicers are facing enormous staffing constraints because they are trying to deal with so many distressed properties, so it is probably even harder now to find the staff to do the paperwork for the foreclosure."
Lenders are also spending more on due diligence, she said. "Servicers and lenders are being heavily scrutinized right now so they probably are more worried than ever about making a mistake in a foreclosure that could subject them to legal liability in the future."
Neighborhoods also benefit from short sales rather than foreclosures. "Short sales typically sell at less of a discount than foreclosure sales do," Jed Kolko, chief economist at real estate website Trulia.com, said via email. "Also, foreclosed homes often sit vacant while short sales are re-occupied more quickly. For both these reasons, short sales tend to depress neighboring property values less than foreclosures do."
Another issue that plagues foreclosures is vandalism, either from opportunistic criminals preying on vacant homes or from disgruntled homeowners. "It's often not a friendly process so you frequently have cases where people deliberately vandalize homes," Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said.
Some economists worry that the drop in foreclosures is less an indication of lenders' willingness to compromise and more a function of a huge backlog of foreclosures that haven't been processed. "Foreclosures are going to be a drag on the market for along period of time," Baker said. Until these distressed homes are resold and assimilated back into the market, real estate prices can't stabilize.
Baker added, though, that lenders facing years' worth of legal wrangling and costs to execute a foreclosure may be more willing to accept a buyer's offer in a short sale.
The other caveat is that short sales aren't an option for all distressed homeowners. Short sales are contingent on the ability of sometimes multiple lenders to agree on a price that a buyer is also willing to pay. For people who took out multiple mortgages or have other liens, this presents a challenge. "It's just a little more complicated when you have more parties involved," Schwartz said.